"I don’t know of any perfect play. A work of art is never completed, only abandoned. The only perfect play is a dead play.”
-Alan Schneider, 1962, The Christian Science Monitor
There’s a small debate among the Hideo Kojima faithful: did one of video games’ few true auteurs really get to finish Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, the last game in the long running franchise he created?
Technically, the game is complete, robust and a lot of fun. It has a full suite of mechanics. The game runs as you’d expect, no suddenly drop offs into a polygonal abyss. But the game feels like there’s something missing. You can even go on the r/metalgearsolid subreddit, do a search for “unfinished,” and see results going back years. Yes, there’s concept art and information on cut content available online, but it wouldn’t matter if the game felt like a whole package. There’s a reason why that is.
While The Phantom Pain starts off great, it fumbles the ending. The final mission is a repeat of the beginning, a gigantic spectacle that would wrap up any other MGS game happens halfway through, and the last story mission fails at delivering the finish we’ve come to expect from the Metal Gear franchise. But it wouldn’t take many revisions to get it squared away.
Spoilers follow for basically the entire Metal Gear franchise.
The final playable story based mission, “Mission 46: Truth - The Man Who Sold The World,” is a replay of the first mission, “Flashback Prologue Awakening,” but with a big twist. Protagonist Venom Snake is revealed to not be Big Boss, the series’ protagonist/antagonist.
The big twist of Venom Snake’s true identity is a mind-blower, but it’s not a satisfying twist ending. As Matt Bird says in “Secrets of Story, (available as a book and his blog)” a twist only works if it explains everything that happened before. It can’t just be a random cool thing. Think about the ending of the original Planet of the Apes, with its wrecked Statue of Liberty reveal that they were on a post-apocalyptic Earth, not another planet, the entire time. It’s a twist so effective, it became the basis of an entire franchise for decades. Compare that to the infamous “twist” of the Tim Burton’s 2001 Planet of the Apes remake, with “Ape-braham Lincoln.” It’s a non-sequitur with no relation to the story.
The reveal of Venom Snake’s true identity is closer to the latter, though not as absurd. Since you played through the entire game with only minor beats, not major plot points, hinting that Venom isn’t Big Boss, nothing needed to be explained. It might actually be a better final mission for Ground Zeroes, since it becomes a conclusion for a different game’s protagonist.
If you want something closer to a traditional ending of a Metal Gear title in The Phantom Pain, it arguably happens earlier in the story.
“The Truth” is the final mission of TPP, but what feels like the real climax are Missions 30 and 31, “Skull Face” and “Sahelanthropus.”
At the start, Venom Snake and supporting character Kaz want revenge. In “Flashback Prologue Awakening” and “Mission 1: Phantom Limbs,” Snake is barely able to stand or defend himself as a result of the assault on Mother Base in Ground Zeroes. As for Kaz, his men have been slaughtered, he’s lost limbs, and everything he built in Peace Walker (the prior full game in the series).
By the “Skull Face” mission, Snake has rebuilt his body and Kaz has a new army. They’re fully capable of taking on a giant mech and an opposing force. Skull Face’s forces are vanquished, the mech is defeated and captured. Snake and the denizens of Mother Base get their revenge for the events of Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes. The world is saved, end credits roll.
Most stories would be happy to end it here, but not TPP. After the credits roll, there’s more to come. “Skull Face” is only Mission 31 out of a total of 50. Some of those missions are repeats, but other contain major character development for the supporting cast.
After Mission 31, Eli escapes from Mother Base with Metal Gear Sahelanthropus and the rescued child soldiers, never seen again. Huey is exiled from the base. Quiet exiles herself, rather than risk spreading a parasite infection. Finally, we learn that our protagonist Venom Snake is not actually Big Boss but a brainwashed medic.
This is why we can’t consider Mission 31 to be the “real,” effective ending**:** Snake and Kaz get what they want, but the remainder of the cast still experiences plenty of development after this would-be climax. The big character moments with Eli, Huey, Quiet and even Snake should happen as a direct result of the story beats in that mission. That should be the same if “The Truth,” the last mission, was the climax. There should only be Falling Action, wrapping up loose plot points.
In hindsight, the Sahelanthropus fight is less like a climax and more like the change from the second act to the third. Typically a transition into the third act follows the protagonist realizing what they want isn’t what they need. So they make a decision, and start pursuing their real goal in the correct way.
The Phantom Pain starts as a revenge story. Typically those go one of two ways:
1: the protagonist achieves their goal, which typically ends in tragedy (think Hamlet, where the lead character achieves their goal but is killed)
2: That goal is abandoned in favor of a new one.
If Snake is out for revenge, then the Metal Gear fight and subsequent death of Skull Face are where Snake gets what he wants. But since we established neither “Skull Face” and “The Truth” would make for a satisfying ending, we have to look at “Mission 45: A Quiet Exit” as the true finish of this game.
By “A Quiet Exit,” Quiet has left Mother Base after being interrogated under suspicions of being a spy. With the reveal she has a parasite that will kill her and others if she speaks English, she exiles herself. However, she’s captured by Russian soldiers, causing Snake to mount a rescue that results in their taking on a tank battalion. After the firefight, Snake and Quiet escape, but he’s bitten by a snake, infected with fatal irony. Quiet breaks the silence, calling in the rescue helicopter, and resuming her exile.
But does this mission work as an ending? What if Venom Snake wants is revenge, but what he needs is...love?
Ultimately this mission is centered around Quiet, who is supporting cast and not the protagonist. It also leaves some dangling plot holes, like “why doesn’t Quiet just speak in a different language?” The ending has to wrap everything up, there can’t be anything left for the audience to question.
It also depends on how much you buy into the “romance” between Snake and Quiet. Ocelot states that Quiet was sent to Mother Base to kill Snake, but instead has “fallen in love with the legend.” Whether this is romantic love or platonic love is up to the player, but outside of some lingering glances and a scene of the two dancing in the rain, TPP is definitely not a romance. Quiet and Snake’s relationship develops from “trying to kill each other” to “willing to risk their lives for each other,” but it’s not the focus of the entire game.
It’s especially hurt by a later update to the game that brought Quiet back. She’ll leave her exile and rejoin Diamond Dogs if you replayed a mission several times. Her ending is essentially undone, to not undo the work players did developing that relationship.
Here, after analyzing the literal final mission, the defeat of the antagonist, and the exit of a supporting character that could redefine the protagonist’s arc, we see the problem. The Phantom Pain feels unfinished because it doesn’t stick the landing. It fails to give a satisfying conclusion, one of the best known shortcomings in storytelling. As Robert McKee says in “Story,” “The Climax of the last act is far and away the most difficult scene to create: It’s the soul of the telling. If it doesn’t work, the story doesn’t work.”
Oddly enough, this isn’t an issue with most other titles in the Metal Gear Solid franchise. Even the famously open-ended Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, or Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots with an ending cutscene taking over an hour to wrap everything up, have satisfying endings.
Let’s compare TPP to Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. Both have similar scores on Metacritic (94 to 93) but Snake Eater doesn’t get the accusation of being incomplete. Granted there isn’t concept art and WIP videos for late game missions in Snake Eater, but let’s focus on the works as released.
In Snake Eater, you play as Naked Snake (a similar but different protagonist from TPP’s Venom) on a mission to defeat your old mentor, The Boss, and prove the US’ innocence in a nuclear attack in Russia. Along the way, Snake discovers the Russian military command Colonel Volgin is developing the “Shagohod,” a nuclear tank capable of launching a nuke at any target. Snake manages to infiltrate Volgin’s base, defeat him and destroy the Shagohod, and then fights his mentor The Boss to the death.
Naked Snake has a clearly defined goal; his mission is to kill The Boss. He has to do it to avoid a war. There’s a big mech fight along the way, but that’s an ancillary goal that feels big. You’re still going about your mission, but along the way you’re saving the world. When the game starts, The Boss is still fulfilling that mentor role for Snake, and the first act ends with her betrayal and defection from the US to Russia. The last major event in the game is when they fight to the death as enemies. The values have changed from one extreme to the other.
It also helps that between the Shagohod and Boss fights, there isn’t a ton of repeated content and character moments that happen apropos of nothing. Defeating Volgin and destroying the nuclear death tank leads directly into fighting The Boss; she’s waiting for Snake at the end of their escape route. There are some character arcs that end after The Boss’ defeat (a final duel with Ocelot, Eva’s reveal), but they happen as a result of the Shagohod and Boss fights. Characters don’t exit the narrative after you’ve completed four more missions.
It wouldn’t take very much to fold most of the post-”Skull Face” events of TPP back in and turn that giant mech fight into a proper climax. You wouldn’t even have to rewrite much of it. For instance:
It’s much harder to reintegrate “The Truth” as no plot events directly precede it. You’d be better off leaving it a “hidden” mission like it already is.
Hideo Kojima has called himself a “perfectionist,” which makes sense. I hate to speculate on the game’s development, but maybe with a few more cycles, the narrative could’ve been shaped into a bit better structure. All the elements are there, they just don’t come together in the end. As it stands, the game will always leave a lingering feeling that it doesn’t quite