The depth of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain only dawned on me after I unlocked the multiplayer mode, which has you attacking bases of fellow players and defending against their attacks. As with any game, when a new mode opens up, the first reaction is typically to jump right in. I did just that, and my first invasion of a fellow player’s base ended with me cutting his throat in a moment of panic, before winning the match. I felt terrible (I meant to extract him). The next match, however, ended with me getting shotgun blasted by a rival player. And that’s where it began.
Now, the interesting thing about the FOBs multiplayer mode in MGS:V is that after you attack another player, they find out where your base is, and can launch counterattacks. The second player did this when I wasn’t around, killing half my crew and stealing the other half.
My first reaction was a thirst for revenge. And it was in that moment when I realized the genius of MGS:V. I experienced what I think Hideo Kojima wanted players to experience—the phantom pain, when the feeling of being wronged drives you into a want for vengeance.
What’s interesting about Phantom Pain is that every character by your side is a former enemy—either in the Metal Gear series, or during your encounters in MGS:V. Even the soldiers who constitute your team are the former enemies you decided to fulton back to your base.
It then raises the question: what is an enemy and what is a foe? To explore this (and without giving spoilers), MGS:V makes you experience betrayal, forgiveness, and mercy. It also shows in your rivals (and states clearly) that a thirst for vengeance can make a man into a demon. In the game, the enemies that pursue you are phantoms from your past—those who either feed off the hatred of others, or who are driven and controlled by a want for vengeance over the wrongs you’ve committed against them.
This effects you in-game as well. The theme that your actions can transform you into a monster is something that can actually play out—with Snake’s horn growing larger, or even with Snake covered in unremovable blood if you decide to head down that dark road.
On the surface, the game’s story plays with two key themes: language and race, which along with ideology are the key elements in our world that seem to unite people, or drive them apart.
It goes into the idea of what happens if we lose our ability to speak with one-another, or what happens when we set aside our differences to unite ourselves behind a common cause?
It plays with the idea that the same people you’re fighting with today over your differences, could just as easily be your close friends had you met on different terms. And it shows the terrible form of vengeance, and its never-ending spiral.
Even in your two main comrades, these themes are shown in how they deal with the past. Ocelot (your enemy in other MGS games) is on the good side of this. He’s the voice of reason, and a man who took past defeats as the foundation to build a better future. Then there’s Miller, your old friend tortured by the past and forever in want of revenge against those who wronged him.
Both of these characters went through something similar, and both took a different path. They stand by your side throughout the game, as a reminder of your own choice of how you regard past wrongs against yourself.
Then (without giving spoilers), there are other main characters who reflect these two paths. One of them is a phantom of wrongdoing against you, who is hated, and the other is a phantom of your own wrongdoing, who turns this to love.
I won’t detail an of the story itself, but in every juncture of the game, these elements are explored, and even in the gameplay—such as how do you react when another player kills or steals your men—you as a player are also led by the crossroads of forgiveness and vengeance.