I think Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is one of the best games of the year. However, I also believe it is the weakest story in the Metal Gear Solid series. There are several reasons for that, but right now I want to focus on one aspect: Big Boss says hardly anything.
There will be slight spoilers for the Mad Max films and Metal Gear Solid V and a major one for the original BioShock. I will briefly mention the very end of Metal Gear Solid V but will mark it with another spoiler warning.
“[Big Boss] is and always has been nothing more than an extension of the player…In fact, this time, [Big Boss] won’t really speak much at all. [Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain] is an open world game focused on giving freedom to the player who will drive [Big Boss]’s actions. [Big Boss] himself will be more of a silent protagonist similar to Mad Max in [Mad Max 2].”
Kojima’s comparison of Big Boss to Max in Mad Max 2 is somewhat misleading. Max has a reason to be silent. The original Mad Max shows Max interacting with the world and conversing with people normally. Towards the end of the film, Max’s family is killed and the rest of the movie’s running time is spent on Max killing the perpetrators. He then leaves society and starts wandering the post-apocalyptic wasteland outside of it. Max becomes a husk of a man and isolates himself from the world. The reason Max is silent in Mad Max 2 is clearly a result of his experiences in Mad Max. Even then, Max still interacts with people when he absolutely needs to. Max stumbles upon a small group of people defending a refinery from a bunch of lunatics. The scenes that feature Max inside of this refinery often show him talking with the residents. Even as a silent protagonist, Max speaks when spoken to and realizes when his input is needed.
Big Boss has absolutely no reason to be silent and it even contradicts his character in some ways. He is a very talkative person in Metal Gear Sold 3: Snake Eater, even though he is on a stealth mission. He yaps away on his radio to Major Zero, Para-Medic and other operatives. The Phantom Pain opens with him awakening from a nine year coma, and he is then thrown into some of the most insane events in the entire Meal Gear series. Yet he says nothing. Unlike Max, there is no reason for Big Boss to be silent. Also unlike Max, Big Boss stays silent in situations where he should talk. Towards the end of the game, he is inches away from the main antagonist while the typical villain monologue is delivered and Big Boss says absolutely nothing. Big Boss’ silence makes absolutely no sense and detracts from the narrative, whereas Max’s silence makes sense and remains consistent with that character.
This is that major spoiler I warned about earlier
A narrative reason for Big Boss’ silence could be that the main character is not actually Big Boss, but Venom Snake, a man who underwent plastic surgery and hypnotherapy to believe he was Big Boss. The problem with that reason is, Venom Snake is supposed to be a copy-paste of Big Boss, so he should talk as much as the original.
This reveal is not just about shocking the audience, it actually relates to Kojima’s statement about the character being an extension of the player. Venom Snake is told by Big Boss that Venom is also Big Boss, and that together they make up the legend that is Big Boss. This is also supposed to be Kojima telling the audience that the player is also part of the legend of Big Boss; it is a very powerful way of telling the audience, “Thank you for supporting this series.” However, a non-silent protagonist would not have ruined the effectiveness of this moment. The message is not powerful because I was projecting myself onto Snake, it was powerful because Metal Gear Solid is one of my favorite video game series. Any sort of thank you would have sufficed.
End of the major spoiler
Other games have used silent protagonists as a tool for immersion. Probably the most well known example of this is Gordon Freeman of the Half-Life series. His character, or lack of one, also has no real narrative reason to remain quiet. His silence is less egregious than Big Boss’ due to the fact that he has remained silent for the entirety of the series. A good example of a silent protagonist is Jack from the original BioShock. Towards the end of the game, it is revealed that he has been subjected to mind control. His limited interactions with other characters are often them giving him orders. However, even after he knows he is being controlled he remains silent, but by then a majority of the game is over.
Metal Gear Solid V’s story has many problems, but one of the most prevalent is the silence of Big Boss. It hinders the game in an attempt to provide immersion, yet ends up detracting from that immersion more than a voiced character would. Not only that, it also contradicts how his character has interacted with people in the past. Big Boss is no longer the social being he used to be, but instead a man who says absolutely nothing, even when his input is critical to that moment.
Riley Berry is an Associate Writer for MONG who could not remain silent on this topic any longer. You can follow him on Twitter.