Linguistics is the Missing Limb

At the end of the Phantom Pain’s “Part 1”,  the main antagonist reveals his motivations. He is a product of constant re-appropriation and hurt. America has absorbed his culture and […]

At the end of the Phantom Pain’s “Part 1”,  the main antagonist reveals his motivations. He is a product of constant re-appropriation and hurt. America has absorbed his culture and turned him into another puppet of imperialism. A puppet that had to literally rewrite his own self to do his job, to the point that he forgot his morality, hopes and dreams. And the way this rewriting happens? Language.

Skull Face speaks English. He sure wishes he did not. I have never related more to a video game character in my life. Why? Because English represents the fact that I live in a culture that does not respect me or has any sincere interest in my humanity if we were to define it as the product of my culture and self-interest. Kojima understands this. Kojima decided to make a game about his dark impulses to abolish globalization.

At the core of the Phantom Pain, beyond its flaky explanation for Big Boss’s turn to evil there is a grown concern for the future of humanity in an age where one culture has managed to supersede all others. Big Boss stumbles upon a plot that intends to roll back centuries of globalization and imperialism via biological warfare. It’s not hard to empathize with Skull Face if, like him, you’re also an immigrant.

So, OK, some background. I am a Latino kid who learned English on his own entirely because my interest was not in Latino culture. I was delighted by things like genre and movies by Fincher and Tarantino. So I kinda had to learn English to truly appreciate them. But of course, the natural resentment that comes from having to abandon my culture in order to get in touch with an experience that I wholly bought into as more universal came with me as I grew older. You have to understand that when you’re a teenager, you rebel against “The Establishment” and my establishment at the time was the Spanish language and the Latino culture, things that I now consider to be part of counter-culture by virtue of my relocation to North America.

So the Phantom Pain’s antagonist comes from a relatively similar background. He learns English because he needs to adapt to his new milieu. He has lost every single thing that would identify a human being. His face, his language, his culture, his family and people, they were all taken by the Americans who saw his potential and his land’s utility. So he decides to retaliate. To counter attack the narrative America has built, and the way he intends to do so is by deleting the very code in which this narrative has been created: English.

Throughout the Phantom Pain, Snake has to collaborate with people who come from similar displaced backgrounds. People who have lost their culture to American globalization and imperialism in order to stop an over the top retaliation against the crimes they have suffered but which would affect many others and, most dreadfully, put Skull Face in control of war as we know it. Snake, Quiet and Code Talker all understand that war is not a beast to control or a game you can win. It’s an intangible force that controls and destroys millions of life, regretfully, but it’s the only milieu Snake and Quiet understand

In fact, one of the most fascinating aspects of the game is Quiet and Snake’s relationship being relatively subtle and hinted at through gestures and trust. By the end of Quiet’s storyline, it’s clear she deeply cares about Snake because he showed her kindness and trust after their sniper duel. Over time this one gesture evolves into a symbiotic relationship rooted not in language or shared jokes but rather shared beliefs communicated exclusively through action and gesture. In other words, they overcome the barrier of language in order to see through to each other. And they don’t see each other as victims even if they know each other to be people who have been hurt as much as they have hurt others. They see themselves as survivors who have nothing but each other. And that’s all they ever needed.

This is especially powerful in a game about language. A game that’s ostensibly* about how the language I’m using to write this (and you’re using to read this) is the building material for America’s current grip on the world’s heart and soul has its two main characters build a relationship by forgoing it. They both represent the possibility that there is a way out of the quagmire that MGS depicts. That the culture of control that Zero’s Patriots (and the Philosophers before him) ran is not necessarily a must for the world to go on.

By the end of the Phantom Pain, it’s clear that the main struggle of the series has been all about trying to reshape the world into one where men are truly free. It’s just that each and every character, both antagonists and protagonists have different ideas on how to do so. Skull Face thinks English represents the bars in our prison. Solid, Liquid and Solidus all eventually realize it’s the Patriots instead who are responsible for the proliferation of war and fear in our heavily globalized world but Liquid and Solidus decide that taking them out matters more than the lives of anybody in the crossfire. Solid opposes them because he is not fully aware of the Patriots but also because he doesn’t see morality as a grand picture deal. Every life matters and while he’s more than willing to kill in order to get the job done, he believes that killing is a morally tainting affair and he sees himself as a failure for every life he has taken.

Whereas, Venom Snake has only one thing in his mind, regardless of whether he believes that Skull Face is wrong for trying to delete English through biological genocide: revenge.** “The chain of retaliation is what will truly bind the world as one”, Skull Face says at one point to Zero after finally enacting his revenge on the man who took him in and deleted his identity to turn him into a war dog. He might as well have said “The Metal Gear Solid World”. Because in this reality, the cycle of vengeance is what really defines these people. And again, it comes back to the relationship of Snake and Quiet. They both actively decide to forego this. They are enemies on opposing sides of the battlefield but they see the humanity in each other so they decide to collaborate in order to stop something they truly think will hurt the world as they understand it and as much as they might believe that this world is a terrible place, they also understand that what they want out of this world is freedom.

This all ties into Part 2 which is a really fascinating aspect of the game. Essentially, after finally defeating Skull Face, Big Boss takes Sahelantropus (the newest nuclear capable bipedal tank in the series) for himself and then the game just gives you some wetwork until you get the Truth, which is the final mission on the main list. Meanwhile, cutscenes hit constantly at plot threads that had to be dropped because the game had to be released eventually and Kojima wanted a new area. It’s just that you know, money is a thing that you kinda have to use to make things happen in art that isn’t just print.

Because of all this, Part 2 feels like equal parts epilogue and continuation. And while it’s technically the product of admittedly ambitious failure, it still manages to be rather compelling all things considered. Most of the reason why is because it supports Skull Face’s claim/summary of the MGS world. Part 2 is a series of retaliations. Characters who have been hurt or wronged confronting their enemies in such brutal fashion that they ensure that others will be interested in hurting them. Not to mention that this all leads to probably the single, most harrowing moment in the franchise: the second quarantine outbreak, a scene that manages to be both creepy (if by virtue of seeing all these soldiers so thoroughly idolizing Big Boss to the point you feel you accidentally created a cult rather than just, you know, a nation of mercenaries) and utterly devastating (these were your men and their lives were taken away at the one place where you implicitly promised them safety) and all because Huey decided that the life of the men who captured him and tormented him was worth nothing to him. Cause and effect, retaliation after retaliation.

It’s a shame that the Phantom Pain came to us unfinished. It’s a game’s game and a culmination of video games’ obsession with revenge that manages to get players invested both on the idea of fighting back against the men who hurt your playable character(s) AND that shows up revenge and retaliation in video games for what they really are: resentment-based emotional prisons that destroy people’s lives for nothing more than just meaningless and temporal catharsis. It’s not Kojima at his best but it’s definitely at his most ambitious as well as a brutal reminder of why, regardless of his many shortcomings, we need more designers like him who are thoroughly invested in creating games that reflect their own world view rather than a franchise’s.

*: Like many other MGS games, The Phantom Pain is about language as much as MGS1 is about cloning, MGS2 is about information, etc. That is to say, these ideas take center stage often but they intercommunicate with a wider atmosphere of paranoia and the many enemies (or phantoms as Kojima should pay me to call them) that the series sees as unstoppable yet necessary.

**: I should note that Venom Snake is much more enigmatic and much less forthcoming about his beliefs and motivations than the other Snakes that have preceded him and that he is much less enthusiastic about revenge than Miller and even Ocelot are. But he still seems fundamentally motivated by the fact that Skull Face stole a whole decade and a life from him. My personal interpretation, however, is that he’s more interested in rebuilding what was taken from him than in burning down the man who took it from him, but that might just be my projecting and I’m doubtful that’s entirely true.