My favorite video game this year is Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. Were it anything but a video game — a movie, a book, a television show, a Vine, anything really — I would despise it.
The game doesn't conceal its warts. An espionage adventure, set in Afghanistan and a vague location in central Africa in the 1980s, it treats historical real world conflicts with the subtlety and complexity of a sledge hammer, casually aligning its perverted and non-sensical conspiracy theory plot alongside events that led to the deaths of thousands across the globe. As social commentary, it's shallow at best, and repugnant at worst.
Metal Gear Solid is a PMC simulator
Its violence is grotesque, but what mature-rated AAA video game isn't stacked with a nauseating surplus of bullets to the head? The game allows for stealth and non-lethal combat, but like so many shooters, it includes enough pistols, machine guns, and rocket launchers to launch a small army, which is fitting, because that's the protagonist's goal: a grizzled soldier named Snake spends the thrust of his time assembling his forces on a rapidly expanding offshore facility. Metal Gear Solid V is a better Blackwater simulator than the actual Blackwater video game.
The locals are parodies of their actual locations, replete with cartoonish versions of real world horrors: the beginning of the game hints at the mass murder of insurgent forces, a mission in the middle of the game begins with the words "Guest starring Child Soldiers," and surely enough, child soldiers guest star in the mission.
And then there's the portrayal of the game's strongest female character: an abuse victim turned trained killer named Quiet, a woman who wears a poor-fitting bikini and torn stockings because, as the product of freak experiments, she must breathe through her skin — and as the product of a lecherous game designer, she must be fully exposed, so the camera can linger up her navel to her breasts.
And that's just the ground level. Underneath the game's surface is an unmanageable script, full of twists for the sake of twists, characters with thin motivations that can't be bothered to line up with their roles in previous entries in the series, and dubious use of pop music to give otherwise hollow moments some emotional spunk. Running deep beneath all of this is a paranoid, conspiratorial adoration of militarization and angst of the noble intentions of good men.
Playing Metal Gear Solid V is like watching Jerry Bruckheimer try to adapt The Taming of the Shrew from a fifth grader's book report written in Esperanto. All of the vulgarity and anachronistic politics survive, but any grace or artfulness in storytelling is replaced with a series of explosions and a sketch of a woman's disembodied chest.
Maybe then I'm experiencing Stockholm syndrome, but the more I play the game, the more I believe Metal Gear Solid V is as elegant and inspired as it is tawdry, puerile, and ignorant.
The game is elegant as it is puerile
I've shoveled dozens of hours into Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, more than I've given any other game this year. Its world — the people, the animals, the squat cliffs, the sprawling villages — are beautifully drawn and animated. Hours have gone by riding a horse, seeing what there is to see, keeping an eye on the sun as it lowers beneath the horizon.
If you strip everything away — the characters, the story, the real world setting, the fact that at worse you're murdering hundreds of people, and at best, torturing them into joining your private military — Metal Gear Solid V is like an elementary school gym game. You have a target, be it a person or a vehicle or a chrome gas tank, that needs to be captured or tagged (read: KILLED), and you should do so, well, the game would prefer you be careful, but you can do whatever you like. You can spend an hour devising a strategy, then carefully sneak through a serpentine base. Or you can find a mortar launcher on a cliff, and destroy everything. Or you can unlock a rideable robot that handles like a bumper car, zip past the guards, grab what you need, and try to escape before an enemy drills you in the face with who knows what.
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is wildly fun, often despite its story, but rarely despite its systems. On its most basic level, it's my childhood fantasy of GI Joe come to life. The game provides variations on the same old scenario — get from point A to point B in the most badass way possible — and dozens of variables for me to incorporate. Maybe this time I'm super fast! Or ultra quiet! Or maybe I use C4 and walk away real cool with explosions going off behind me!
These scenarios also double as puzzles. As I play, I'm constantly speculating countless "if / thens," gauging the risks and rewards. If I take a step from the shadows, will the enemy gunship spot me? What if I crawl? If I know it will spot me, maybe I should just run from A to B! Well, if I'm running, then what weapons should I equip? It's getting dark out, maybe I need to use my heat-vision goggles. Will they run out before I get where I'm going? In the span of seconds, these theoreticals zip by, and without my thinking, my fingers do what my brain decides is best after analyzing all the data.
At its core, MGSV is a toy box full of action figures
The body count of this single game can surpass the total body count of the year's most popular action films (we're talking up close and personal kills, not San Andreas-style apocalypses), but it does so with the intention of experimentation. Metal Gear Solid V is a safe place to practice sly, challenging, and intense puzzles, that have been placed within the most fantastically and lavishly created children's action play set.
Metal Gear Solid as a franchise has been lauded as video games meant for adults, but everything likable within The Phantom Pain reminds me of the fun I had as a kid, when I was creative and fearless enough to turn a couple immobile figures into the fantastic action set pieces only I could appreciate.
I do wish my favorite game of the year wasn't so disgusting and self-impressed and reliant on dealing death, but what I like most about games is the game itself, not all the trappings. And Metal Gear Solid V is a very good game.