Sometimes a lesson's best learned from someone else's mistakes. This is my story.
I am playing Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain, an espionage video game in which I, Snake, a Kurt Russell knock-off with the voice of Kiefer Sutherland, tool around a huge, open facsimile of Afghanistan in 1984. I climb mountains, ride my trusty horse, assault Soviet bases, build a private military, and extract high-profile targets in exchange for pay from outside forces. Who am I working for? Why am I working for them? That's not my problem. This is a one-man Blackwater simulator — while also being a pretty on-the-nose critique of Blackwater and the military industrial complex.
Anyway, in this story, I'm on a pretty typical mission, one that's not even part of the main campaign. My chopper has dropped me in a field, just outside a small, rundown village overrun with Soviet forces. A voice in my ear says something about extracting a high-priority target. I've done plenty of these — a dozen, at least. Get in, get out; nobody gets hurt, especially not me.
My standard procedure is to separate a sheep from the herd
My standard procedure is to separate a sheep from the herd. I scout the village from the hills and find one soldier who's made the mistake of walking a little too far from the center of town and the rest of his automatic weapon toting pals. I climb down the hill, tip toe around the periphery, and approach him from behind. I wrap my arms around his neck and apply some pressure, forcing him to go limp. I drag the man into the shadows and demand he provide the location of the target. Instead, he gives me some details about another talented soldier in the area; a hostile that I might want to recruit for my PMC, my private military company. I'm grateful — my army always needs good manpower — so I knock this guard out as painlessly as I can, preventing oxygen from making its way down his gullet.
I repeat my procedure with a second soldier, and am disappointed when he does the same, providing info on a soldier that, while interesting, doesn't serve the purpose of my visit to this town. My luck isn't any better with the third soldier or the fourth.
I grow irritated. I've come across a group, it would seem, that knows how to keep their big mouths shut. I accept that I'll have to do this the old-fashioned way: with my trusty set of binoculars and a truckload of patience. I climb the hillside on the opposite side of the village and scout for the target, but every person I survey is just an ordinary schmo. I try another hillside and produce the same results.
Where is my target?
Okay, I decide, I'll do this manually. There are about 30 or 40 little homes in this village. I'll take a peek into each. By the 20th home, I'm antsy though. I'm antsy, loose, impatient, and prone to dumb mistakes. I'm deep into the village when a soldier way back by the periphery spots me. He's too far from me to dispatch with my puny silenced tranquilizer gun, and before I can devise a Plan B, the entire camp is alert, and I'm swarmed by guards.
I will check every house in town, if I must
I duck into one of the tiny homes — the target's not here either, dammit — sneak out the back door, down the alley, and onto a blown out shop from which I unleash hellfire on the soldiers with my machine gun. I'm irritated, I'm a little bored, and these fictional people will pay for the inconvenience. With the mission bottoms-up, I decide the easiest way to find the target is to kill everyone here. It's better to think of this decision as an example of problem solving, and not the bloodbath it appears to be on the surface. You see, it's a puzzle. If I remove every person one by one, then my subject will be the only one left standing — other than me.
Between the heavy weapons and mortars, it doesn't take long to clear an entire town. I hear a mechanical hum coming from the distance, and I hide. Is this it? A truck pulls up with a handful of soldiers, and I dispatch them too, before they have a chance to judge me and what I have done. I let one live, and ask him where, please where, the target is. But he doesn't know a thing. He just got here. I put him to bed. Because my data analysis device tells me he's a high-ranked soldier, I attach balloons to his waist and send him into the stratosphere, where he will be collected by a helicopter and forced to join my army.
I am happy to have a fresh recruit, but I'm defeated by what he represents: the last warm body in miles just took a balloon ride out of here. Now I'm in my living room, wondering if the game has some bug. I'm playing the PC version after all. PC games have bugs all the time. I climb the one remaining unscouted hillside and scan the village. Nothing. I hit the pause menu to reread the mission details.
A sheep. I was sent to rescue a sheep. My high-priority target is a sheep.
I survey the village and count at least a dozen corpses. Those are just the ones in the streets. The buildings, containing the other lifeless forces, betray the true carnage. I radio my support team back at base to see if they have any thoughts, and Ocelot, my guide on this quest, says something to the effect like, "After everyone abandoned town, the goats took it back." Everyone did abandon town, I think. Even if their bodies are still here.
I take a long look through my binoculars for the sheep and think I spot the animal by a creek in the distance, but when I approach, all I find is a pipe that I guess sort of looks like a goat from far away. I stroll the streets, smoking my electronic cigarette, and after a moment or two, I find the target in a cute little pen. Did the soldiers build this pen? Did they care for this goat?
I shoot the goat in the face with a tranquilizer, strap a balloon around its gut, and send the creature into the sky for retrieval. Mission accomplished. I go to whistle for my horse, but decide I'd rather leave town on foot. The horse doesn't need to see this.