Despite playing video games for most of my life, I have put considerable time into very few online games. They just aren’t my thing. While I get the sheer Skinner Box appeal of a Call of Duty’s online play, or the exploration of subtle mechanics one might find in a League of Legends, I’ve always preferred games with a narrative bend, and developers either aren’t interested or don’t know how to integrate a narrative into an online system in any interesting way.

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To the extent that an individual’s online actions have any effect beyond leveling up his own avatar, they tend to interact with one of two types of narrative structures: a perfunctory, generic plot overlay, or community built systems. The former structure is what one sees in World of Warcraft. There is technically a generic medieval fantasy story with a few more outlandish elements in the game, but nobody cares about it. The quest givers aren’t sovereign beings with believable lives you’re trying to help, they’re experience-distribution vending machines with arbitrary payment systems. The story exists in the background because it isn’t worth the developer’s effort to put energy into something the player won’t notice. And this can be acceptable in something like WoW because the game is all about being immersed in an absurdly addictive feedback system wherein getting a weapon with an incrementally better stat bonus will always be more important than reuniting a random peasant with his kidnapped daughter.

The latter structure can also be seen in WoW through its endless guilds, factions, and raiding parties, but a better example game is Eve Online. Eve is famous, or arguably notorious, for creating one of the deepest, but most opaque online communities ever conceived. Despite the game’s built-in barebones setting, the Eve Online community has evolved to accommodate hundreds of thousands of player-created and run corporations, a largely player-to-player economy sufficiently vast to warrant both a central manager and the study of professional economists, and the single most expensive digital battle in history. While Eve’s developer laid the ground work for its community, nearly all of the day-to-day activity within the game world is driven by spontaneous player interaction which creates its own conflicts and narratives. And while I do find this system fascinating, I also recognize that it is extremely difficult for an outsider to get into, and with the exception of my time with Medieval Total War in the mid-2000s, I’ve never found a community narrative system I particularly wanted to invest it.

Again, both of these systems are fine, they just aren’t for me. I typically like games which focus on integrating the player’s actions into a story, or at least an expressed theme. The place holding narrative of WoW is too boring and minimalist for me, while the convoluted culture of Eve is too distant and costly.

Then there’s the Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain’s utterly unique approach to multiplayer.

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Whatever else one may think about Hideo Kojima, it can’t be denied that he’s an outside-the-box type of guy. His approach to the multiplayer in MGSV (which, to clarify, is not the same as Metal Gear Online) was to build an online mechanical system which directly connected to the game’s over-arching single player structure. In doing so, Kojima not only made the online play relevant to its offline play mechanically, but even managed to introduce thematic meaning to what would otherwise be a repetitious mechanical grind. To get how this works, you have to understand a bit about Metal Gear’s understandably daunting lore.

This may be a tad difficult to follow for those unfamiliar with the series, and it will be spoiler-free. And for the sake of coherency, here is a list of all Metal Gear games in “in-universe” chronological order.

  1. Metal Gear Solid 3
  2. Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops
  3. Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker
  4. Metal Gear Solid 5
  5. Metal Gear
  6. Metal Gear 2
  7. Metal Gear Solid
  8. Metal Gear Solid 2
  9. Metal Gear Solid 4

Despite the Metal Gear series’ association with the protagonist Solid Snake, arguably the most important individual throughout the entire Metal Gear saga’s 100 years of lore is Big Boss, a legendary soldier thought to be the single greatest combatant and military leader in history. Big Boss is the antagonist of the first two Metal Gear games (which were released in the 80s but took place in the 90s), and despite his death at the conclusion of Metal Gear 2, Big Boss’s legacy loomed large throughout later games in the time line as their plots were inevitably based around mimicking Big Boss’s legacy. In 2004, Kojima recontextualized the whole series by setting MGS3 in the 1960s and casting the player as Big Boss at the start of his career as an ostensible hero in the same light as Solid Snake. With the exception of MGS4, the rest of the games in the MG series after that point take place between Big Boss’s origin and his eventual decent into villainy in MG.

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MGSV is supposed to be the Metal Gear game which emphatically displays the narrative bridge between the heroic Big Boss of the in-universe chronologically earlier games and the villain in the latter games. MGS3, Portable Ops, and Peace Walker all portray Big Boss as a tragic hero who wants to make the world a better place and protect his fellow soldiers from the machinations of amoral politicians, while MG, MG2, MGS1, MGS2, and MGS4 portray Big Boss as a war lord and war criminal who threatens the world with nuclear destruction with a bid for de facto global domination. The ostensible narrative purpose of MGSV is to magnify Big Boss’s transition point between those two roles.

On top of Big Boss’s broad character-narrative transition in MGSV, there is a related mechanical transition. The gameplay in the in-universe’s post-MGSV games is based around a common theme called the Die Hard Scenario. Rather than have a plot span a variety of locations, Die Hard Scenarios concentrate the story in a single, relatively small location, like the famous Nakatomi Plaza in Die Hard. In that vein, MG1MGS2 (MGS4 is an exception to the rule) all take place in a single location which has been taken over by a hostile military force and must be infiltrated by a lone agent, typically Solid Snake. This set up created an implied power dynamic between the infiltrator and the defender. The former was weaker, but mobile and independent. The latter was stronger, but entrenched and typically embroiled in the scheming of his lieutenants.

The same dynamic was used in MGS3, Big Boss’s origin, where he was portrayed as the heroic infiltrator of a mighty enemy force. But after MGS3, the mechanics fundamentally shifted. While Portable Ops, Peace Walker, and MGSV all have their fair share of sneaking, another mechanic gradually rose to prominence in those games. In PO, Big Boss gathers his own private force of 100 soldiers to help him overthrow a belligerent dictator. These soldiers are manually recruited by the player by kidnapping them on the battlefield, and then must be assigned to certain roles within Big Boss’s insurgency, including field combat, technology development, and medical care. In PW, this mechanic was expanded as Big Boss created his own independent private army which in the game mechanically translated to a larger army size, more soldier variety, and a much greater range of control over the army’s operations.

Finally, in MGSV, Big Boss’s private military force is at the center of the game’s narrative and mechanics. The potential army size swells to well over 1,000 soldiers, development of technology and broad military capabilities becomes crucial, and virtually every aspect of the game centers on the growth and maintenance of Big Boss’s army. And this very same army that the player raises to fight Skull Face in MGSV (an ostensibly morally good goal) goes on to threaten the world with nuclear destruction in Metal Gear, the next game in the series timeline. Through twists which I won’t reveal here to avoid spoilers, the Metal Gear series narrative is brought full circle and the origin of Big Boss’s villainy is revealed (albeit in a kind of convoluted and controversial way that many players didn’t like, but I did).

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And with all of that said, we can finally look at MGSV’s online system.

One of the big additions to the army building mechanic in MGSV is that Big Boss’s central base is no longer an abstract place that only exists in menus (and a handful of missions in PW). Rather it is a massive oil-rig type structure in the Indian Ocean which expands throughout the game as the player grows his operations. Both for actual missions and in free roam, the player can literally walk around his base and meet his soldier face-to-face.

MGSV’s online mode allows players to infiltrate the bases of other real players. A player can choose to drop in to any one of six base sectors (medical, R&D, etc.) and try to sneak past guards, security cameras, cyphers, scanners, and mines to reach a central facility. If successful, the infiltrator is rewarded with a lump sum of money, strategic resources, and captured soldiers who are brought to his side. On top of this system maintaining the fun of MGSV’s basic stealth gameplay and being mechanically relevant to the single player campaign through its army-boosting rewards, the online system’s cleverest trick is to be thematically relevant to the series as a whole.

For the first time in the Metal Gear series history, the player gets to be the defender of the armed compound rather than the infiltrator. Of course, just as the player can infiltrate other bases, his base can be infiltrated as well. So to defend his base, a player must set security settings like readiness level (higher readiness increases guard strength but has higher maintenance costs), guard routes, trap placements, and weapon selections. Failed defense results in a loss of money, resources, and manpower which can set back progress in reaching base development goals.

The effect is to instill into the player a rare (for the series) mentality of defensiveness. Metal Gear players are used to being the agile, sneaky, assailant trying to destroy the enemy, but all of a sudden the player has to put himself into a fortress mindset. He has to worry not about how to reach a target but how to protect it. He has to be concerned with preserving assets instead of destroying them. Instead of focusing all of his efforts on attacking an enemy, the player is concerned with larger goals but has to put up with annoying detractors who hinder his operations.

In other words, the player transitions from infiltrator to defender. He moves from the Metal Gear series protagonist mindset of Solid Snake, Raiden, and Big Boss in MGS3, to the series antagonist mindset of Liquid Snake, Solidus Snake, Volgin, and Big Boss in MG1 and MG2. This shift perfectly embodies the thematic core of MGSV: Big Boss’s transition from villain to hero.

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MGSV’s online system truly is the culmination of that slow-building theme which started all the way back with MGS3. But the games do a brilliant job of making the transition subtle. Every step of the way it is easy to fall into the contexts the games provide and completely buy into Big Boss’s motivations, even while his actions become increasingly suspicious when viewed from another lens. It’s easy to fall in love with the image of Big Boss as a globetrotting hero who deposes oppressive regimes and builds a home for disenfranchised soldiers far from the manipulations of the equally diabolical American and Soviet governments. The player even gets to meet representations of the people Big Boss helps in the form of adorable children like Paz and Chico. In light of the threat posed by Big Boss’s detractors (pretty much the rest of the world), he seems like a true hero for the ages doing what needs to be done for justice and liberty.

But when viewed from another angle, well… Big Boss becomes the same sort of demagogic, power hungry, and conspiracy-dependent tyrant that he vows to oppose. The legendary soldier flies around the world toppling governments with a recklessness which would never be permitted of any government. And he does so through increasingly dubious means. From his humble private militia, Big Boss grows a massive army (staffed with a few child soldiers) capable of taking on any legitimate state, which of course provokes concerns from the rest of the world, which Big Boss counters by further strengthening his position with metal gears and nuclear weapons, the very tools he constantly warns should never be in the hands of others.

With all of this put together, it’s apparent that Big Boss is just as, if not more dangerous than his admittedly evil opponents. The only real difference between them is that Big Boss allegedly has the moral purity and competence to use unimaginably dangerous tools to make the world a better place, while his enemies don’t. Of course, this is the same rationale used by authoritarian tyrants throughout history, from Julius Caesar to Joseph Stalin.

With all of those layers of plot, mechanics, and theme in the background, MGSV is the last game in the series which somewhat frames Big Boss in a positive light, even while his corruption is evident past the surface level. But unlike the other games in the series, MGSV gives the player a level of mechanical control over his dubious actions. Regardless of the player’s input, Big Boss uses child soldiers and develops his own metal gear in Peace Walker. But in MGSV the player manually builds a private army capable of seriously threatening the rest of the civilized world, constructs a doom fortress to house the army, and then is tasked with mechanically defending the fortress from other armies, even to the point of allowing the player to develop and launch his own nuclear weapons.

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This is why without hesitation I can say that MGSV’s online system is ingenious. Kojima could have easily taken the game’s stellar core mechanics and given players Death Matches, Dominations, and the same game modes they’ve seen in a million other shooters. Instead, he created something we’ve never seen before. I’m sure other predominately single player games have injected thematic relevance in some way into their multiplayer modes, but never to the same degree as MGSV. Such originality and masterful design cannot be praised highly enough.