MAJOR SPOILERS FOR METAL GEAR SOLID V: THE PHANTOM PAIN AND METAL GEAR SOLID 2: SONS OF LIBERTY BELOW.
Let’s talk about review scores, formal analysis and cut content in video games.
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is composed of two chapters. The first, “Revenge,” focuses on Skull Face and enacting vengeance for what happened to the original Mother Base in MGSV: Ground Zeroes. The second chapter, “Race,” focuses more on the language parasites with an outbreak on Mother Base that leads to Mission 43, “Shining Lights, Even in Death.”
Chapter 2 comes to an abrupt end. Eventually, Mission 46, “TRUTH: The Man Who Sold the World” appears on the player’s mission select screen. The player replays the hour long opening sequence of the game with some changes. It becomes clear that the player was not playing as the Big Boss from the rest of the Metal Gear saga. Instead, the player’s character was a body double. The Medic who jumped in front of Big Boss to save him from the bomb outside of Mother Base was shackled with the burden of being a second, identical Big Boss. Credits roll. Game is completed.
The ending feels like it comes out of nowhere. When the mission appears in the player’s list, it’s with little fanfare, only confusion as to what the TRUTH tag before it means. It’s unclear why Venom Snake suddenly remembers the events differently. A major plotline involving Eli running off with Sahelanthropus, an integral first step in the development of the first Metal Gear, is unresolved. A child is literally out in the world with a walking robotic death machine and the game never mentions it again.
Players understandably felt upset. There is an overwhelming vacancy, a longing for something that isn’t there that should be. Frustrations boiled over whenever players discovered cut content throughout the game’s files and collector’s edition extras. One item’s purpose is unclear, a title card for “Chapter 3: Peace.”
More egregious was the partially completed remnants of a “Mission 51: Kingdom of the Flies.” A short video details gameplay, 30% completed cutscenes and storyboards for a mission that would wrap up the Eli and Sahelanthropus escape for a grand total of about 30 seconds before it was opened up again.
Gamers everywhere were quick to claim that MGSV:TPP was unfinished and that budget constraints, a rushed deadline or the falling out between Konami and Kojima were to blame for the scrapped Mission 51 and the general feeling of absence in the game.
The situation is exacerbated by other missing content demonstrated in cutscenes, including additional cutscenes involving the child soldiers and Big Boss on his knees amidst burning corpses. Material like this seemed to support pre-release advertisement about how heavy and treacherous this game’s material would truly be.
It’s important to keep the “why” in mind when examining cut content like Mission 51 in games. Conspiracy theories are fun and the drama surrounding budget constraints or the Kojima/Konami war makes for a more juicy explanation. Evidence for these claims is also scarce and circumstantial. It’s supported by the general knowledge that something happened at Konami and Kojima Productions during development but there is no concrete evidence to confirm. The truth won’t come to light until contracts expire years from now.
The simpler explanation is that the content was cut because it wasn’t fun, didn’t quite fit with the rest of the game or the creators simply didn’t want to include it. This is also an explanation backed up by post-release comments from Kojima and Konami. It also doesn’t rob Kojima of authorial control over MGSV:TPP’s controversial finale. It’s the game he wanted to make, much like every MGS game before it.
Because of that, the more sensible review of MGSV:TPP involves only the content that is included within. The game can’t fairly be critiqued based on what’s missing if the creators decided to intentionally exclude it. A simpler explanation is that Mission 51 is revealed in external media as a treat for the fans. It’s a false assumption to think its inclusion would automatically better the game. Disparaging quality its quality or lowering review scores is unfair compared to all the games that never share cut content.
So if Mission 51 was intentionally removed from MGSV:TPP, what about the missing content in the trailers? Well, this is where artistic criticism and Kojima’s history as an auteur come into play.
Part of me understands how so many gamers and fans could struggle to come to terms with the game. After I finished it, I spent a month or two as a devoted reader and poster of /r/neverbegameover and general tinfoil hat conspiracy theorist embroiled in “Wouldn’t it be amazing if..?”s of Chapter 3 and the rest of the game being revealed in some grand display after nuclear disarmament or some other meta-goal. All aboard the ruse cruise.
Honestly, that would still be cool. The game would achieve something unique for its media, like no other game had before it. It would cement MGSV:TPP’s place among the digital giants and forever earn it a bigger place in gaming history. Months of misdirection, all part of the scheme. No game since Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty has manipulated and misdirected consumers for such a specific purpose. Evidence to support this charade is slim.
The other part of me is baffled by how so many gamers ignore Kojima’s history as an artist. Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty advertised itself as the dream sequel to Metal Gear Solid that improved on its predecessor in every way. The opening Tanker Chapter is basically a tech demo for the PS2 with meticulously crafted physics and animations all designed to amaze the player.
It’s a perfect ride that comes to an end soon, with the player soon controlling the whiny Raiden as he walks through an eerie copy of the first game. MGS2 is carefully constructed to mirror its predecessor in structure, gameplay and narrative. Near the end, it reveals that this was as intended by the characters within as it was the creators from our own world. MGS2 is not just a postmodern narrative on information control and censorship that many remember it by. It is a careful examination of video game sequels and our expectations for them.
MGSV:TPP is a part of that same franchise, created by the same auteur that made MGS2. MGS2 created false expectations by advertising a small portion of its game. MGSV:TPP created a feeling of known absence through misdirection and by advertising content that isn’t there.
Advertising campaigns aside, MGSV:TPP is a game distinctly about a phantom pain. The first chapter comes to an end with Skull Face’s demise and leaves a noticeable lack of an antagonist in the second chapter. Mother Base is never quite the same charming place it was in Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker. It’s brought home with the TRUTH reveal where even Big Boss is missing. This theme would still be overwhelmingly apparent even if Mission 51 was never revealed to the fans.
I think that the content was intentionally cut by the development team, but not for any external budgetary or executive business decisions. If the content was cut by the developers, there are two ways to interpret it. One way is to examine MGSV:TPP’s advertising campaigns and missing content as intentional decisions by Kojima the Artist to instill a phantom pain in players. There is also an area to examine MGSV:TPP and assume the content was cut because it simply didn’t work, in whatever fashion that may be. Those decisions were made by Kojima the Game Developer. Both are valid and there’s evidence to support each method of interpretation. Formal analysis of the game over the years will come from both camps. Both are interesting and exciting.
If MGSV:TPP is clear about anything, it’s that the line between the two Kojimas continues to blur with each new game.