Since people are now starting to finish the game, can we have a discussion about the ending and its implications? Trade theories and what-not. To keep wandering eyes safe, I've left all my analysis under spoilers markings. Please do not go foward if you want to protect those virgin eyes.
Despite the knee-jerk reaction of many across the internet, I love it. I think the last few seconds are a little hard to understand, and I think it's hard to build a complete picture without a little conjecture or some assumptions, but I really enjoy what is going on here. I think this game fits well into the greater thematic arc of Metal Gear and in itself finishes off Big Boss's story satisfactorily. A lot of people say the ending raises too many questions, but if you grasp from around Metal Gear, I think you can put together a coherent narrative even if the pieces are kind of a mess. Luckily, I spent too much time thinking about this series and am a human Metal Gear encyclopedia.
So at the end of the game, you get a tape explaining that you are not Big Boss, but an exact duplicate created by Zero to protect the real Big Boss from his own organization. This scene is really really good, and I love Kiefer's mocap work when Venom Snake smirks and looks at himself in the mirror with this look of power.
But the last few seconds of this scene are extremely important. When he flips the tape over, there's a time jump to 1995.
Be perceptive: in the reflection of the mirror, there is a Diamond Dogs emblem on the bathroom door. However, when Venom flips the tape over, that emblem becomes an Outer Heaven logo. What's the other side of that tape labeled? Operation N313 aka the operation Solid Snake goes on in Metal Gear 1.
Venom puts the tape into an MSX and it reads data on a screen, data Venom can see, but we can't. He then walks over to the mirror again, and in anger punches it. On the other side stands his reflection, which then turns away from us and walks away into darkness. Given that we're in Outer Heaven in 1995, and you can hear the chaos of gunfire outside, it can be safely assumed that this scene happens immediately before Solid Snake arrives to shoot some rockets at him. He breaks the mirror in rebellion against the mission given to him on that tape, but he accepts it anyways, stoically walking to what will become his death. It's also important how this is depicted visually; Venom walks away in black, silhouetted against smoke. As he walks, the space around him becomes darker, until finally he disappears completely.
I think this scene is important not just for characterizing Venom Snake as he strolls off, but also ties into the game thematically. In a lot of ways, MGSV is about the forgotten people that operate in the background to support the big players. Skullface, XOF, us as the players of these games, and Venom Snake; all of them were used to create the Metal Gear world as we know it, and all of them were lost to time. If the original games are about the titans of the universe, this game is about their shadows. Venom Snake disappears at the end of this game; he is washed away from history. Everyone thinks he was Big Boss, and that is all that is ever known of him. He quite literally disappears.
Many people upon seeing the ending assume Venom Snake built Outer Heaven, but this isn't true. At the hospital in Cyprus, Ocelot gives Big Boss a new passport with a new name on it. This is Big Boss's new identity while Venom Snake is Big Boss; the name on that passport is whatever you make it during the character creator, but for the sake of simplicity here, let's just say the name is Steve. Venom Snake, aka the medic, unwittingly gets Big Boss's identity and makes Diamond Dogs and the events of MGSV happen as we see them. During this time, Big Boss is under the name Steve and is building Outer Heaven in South Africa.
But wait, it says that Solid Snake kills Venom Snake in Outer Heaven!?
Yes, but the credits also say Big Boss built Outer Heaven. Notice how the credits refer to real Big Boss as Big Boss exclusively; they refer to Venom Snake as Big Boss's Phantom, never just Big Boss. There's also a discussion after the credits between Kaz and Ocelot about this. They are both included below:
Miller: What was it all for...?
Miller: If the Boss has some plan, what is it?
Ocelot: The real Big Boss is working separately from us, to create his new nation.
Miller: New nation...?
Ocelot: A military nation above and apart from all - the true "Outer Heaven."
Ocelot: Something created to maintain world balance. Big Boss is building a nation.
Ocelot: But... until it's complete, we support the other Big Boss.
Ocelot: The phantom carries on his legend... his meme.
Ocelot: That, is Big Boss's plan.
Miller: So that's the way it is.
In Metal Gear 1, no one knows who the leader of Outer Heaven is until the very end of the game, so it is impossible that Venom Snake creates it with Diamond Dogs. Big Boss is ultimately still the founder of Outer Heaven.
But then what the heck is Venom Snake doing there in Metal Gear 1?
Venom Snake was originally created to be a decoy for Big Boss so that he may live when the whole world wants him dead. Sometime during the events of MGSV, Big Boss realizes another purpose Venom can be used for: he and Big Boss can work together to build Big Boss's legend and achieve his ideological goals.
Many people thought that Big Boss's turn was going to happen in this game, that we would finally see what made him turn to villainy. But Metal Gear is never so black and white, and in reality, Big Boss's turn was more subtle, and actually happened in Peace Walker.
Metal Gear in a grand sense is more a meditation on cults of personality and the destructive influence of ideology. In between MGS3 and Peace Walker, Big Boss has already joined and left the Patriots. If you remember, the Patriots were formed by the former team of Operation Snake Eater to carry on their interpretation of the will of the Boss: a unified world. Zero used Big Boss as a figurehead, a messianic figure, to rally the people behind. Using his immense power and wealth, Zero spread the legend of Big Boss through exaggeration and outright falsification. He also used XOF to help Big Boss on his most dangerous missions to further fuel the perception of Big Boss as the "legendary soldier".
Big Boss hated this, and ultimately came to reject it. Sensing Big Boss's intention to leave, Zero had him cloned to ensure his legacy. This disgusts Big Boss, so he leaves the Patriots, and the loaded "Big Boss" moniker, behind. Using some secret funds given to him by Gene (thanks, Portable Ops!) he begins to build his own interpretation of what the Boss wanted: a place where soldiers will never be tools of anyone.
This is where we find Snake at the start of Peace Walker. He made MSF, a rinky dink little operation, and had totally rejected the title of Big Boss and all the bullshit it was imbued with. He was no messiah, he was just a man.
However, at the end of Peace Walker, Big Boss gets his first hint of what the Boss really wanted: she wanted the world to be left alone, she wanted a world people lived their lives according to their own desires and didn't try to impose their will on others. Big Boss rejects this, rejects the Boss, and from that moment forward begins down his own ideological path. He embraces the title of Big Boss and for the first times concieves of something much bigger than MSF, much bigger than a business: he was going to build Outer Heaven, he was going to build a nation.
What is MGSV all about, then?
It further details Big Boss's fall and shows us everything we ever needed to know about him. While in a coma, Zero comissions a memetic clone of Big Boss. The parallels between Les Enfants Terribles and the creation of Venom Snake are obvious. When Zero did this the first time, Big Boss was disgusted and rejected it. But what did Big Boss do this time? He embraced it, he embraced the cult of personality, he embraced the legend. After MSF was obliterated in Ground Zeroes, Big Boss realized that in order to achieve his sweeping dreams, he had to work from the shadows, even if that meant tying the noose around someone else's neck.
Venom Snake builds Diamond Dogs and eliminates XOF as a threat. It is now that Big Boss lets him in on the whole ruse and opens up an avenue of partnership.
This is the point where conjecture begins
So what we know is that Big Boss is again under the Big Boss identity by the time of MG1; everyone knows him as Big Boss, leader of FOXHOUND, while no one knows who is commanding Outer Heaven. As I said before, Big Boss is building Outer Heaven during MGSV, and as such, Diamond Dogs cannot be Outer Heaven. Everyone in Diamond Dogs (Kaz, Ocelot, Big Boss) eventually ends up in FOXHOUND. What this tells me is that at some point shortly after MGSV ends, Big Boss and Venom Snake switch identities again; Big Boss resumes the title of Big Boss while Venom Snake resumes the Steve alias and takes over as head of Outer Heaven. That's how everyone knows Big Boss is the CO of FOXHOUND, but nobody knows who is leading Outer Heaven in MG1.
It is known that to Zero, and ultimately the Patriots, having Big Boss return to them is favorable to having him killed. So then it makes sense that Big Boss returns to them with Diamond Dogs, Kaz, and Ocelot. He again becomes leader of FOXHOUND, finds Sniper Wolf and Gray Fox, and trains Solid Snake.
But why? Why would Big Boss go back to the US/Cipher/the Patriots?
So that he and Venom can play the field from both sides. He communicates to Venom Snake through cassette tape, and later through MSX tape.
Ok, so what happened in MG1? Why would Big Boss have Solid Snake kill Venom Snake?
This isn't, and never will be, clear to a concrete extent. Because Kojima is gone, all we can ever do is try to build a complete picture from what is, at best, ambiguous information. I'm basically trying to explain character motivations and such using nothing but the last 10 minutes of Phantom Pain, the paper thin plot of a 30 year old MSX game, and the thematic undercurrents of the MGS saga.
But this is my theory, and I'm sticking to it.
It can be safely assumed that whatever is on that N313 tape, Venom doesn't like it. He reads the info and immediately destroys a mirror in rage; that does not sound to me like the reaction of a happy man. Given the info we have, it can be reasonably assumed that Big Boss and Venom communicate through those cassette tapes; it can also be reasonably assumed that towards the end of Metal Gear 1, Venom Snake becomes aware of the fact that Solid Snake is coming to kill him and tries to sabotage that operation. During the game, your CO is Big Boss. He's basically the Campbell of Metal Gear 1; he gives you hints and suggestions on what to do. But suddenly, towards the end of the game, Big Boss contacts you on a new frequency and begins giving you bogus advice to try and sabotage your mission.
This second Big Boss on the new frequency is Venom Snake trying to stall Solid Snake's mission. Now, what we see in MG1 is that the entire time, Big Boss is helpful in assisting Solid Snake in his mission to destroy Outer Heaven. We also know that Venom Snake contacts Solid and tries to stop the mission. If Big Boss didn't want Solid to kill Venom, he would have also worked to stop the mission, not assisted the whole time.
It isn't clear, and it will never be clear, what Big Boss's grand plan was for Operation Intrude N313. As it stands in canon now, he expected Solid Snake to fail. Given the new information about Venom Snake, his motivations become even more nebulous. It was established in early canon that Big Boss sent Solid Snake to Outer Heaven to die. We will continue accepting that this is true since there is nothing that directly contradicts it.
What we also know is that around the time of the mission, Venom Snake gets a tape labeled N313 from Big Boss. This tape likely contains information from Big Boss about this mission, and maybe some orders for Venom Snake as well. After seeing the tape, Venom punches the mirror. Then we have that shot that immediately follows it: he stoically walks into oblivion, accepting his fate.
It is also unclear if the Outer Heaven uprising was Big Boss's or Venom Snake's plan. Again, in canon it is Big Boss's, and at this time nothing directly contradicts that information. The Uprising was the end goal of Big Boss's dream, the final result of Outer Heaven. It was an outright war against the Patriots, and Venom Snake goes along with Big Boss's orders to start it.
The Patriots react to this by sending Solid Snake into Outer Heaven to kill its mysterious leader. Big Boss commands him throughout that mission because he is under cover and doesn't want his cover blown. He hopes that his Uprising will be successful in not just killing Solid Snake, but also in challenging the grip of the Patriots.
However, there is one other favorable outcome. If all goes wrong, Venom Snake can still fulfill his duty as Big Boss's doppleganger. If Venom is able to convince Solid Snake that he is the real Big Boss, and gets killed by Solid Snake, then the real Big Boss can use this to fake his own death and go underground to establish Zanzibar Land, aka Outer Heaven 2.0.
I believe that tape contained a general outline of Solid Snake's mission, which is how Venom was able to mislead him on the radio. I also believe it contained instructions from Big Boss for Venom to convince everyone that he is actually the real Big Boss so that if he dies in Outer Heaven, Big Boss can still work in secret to achieve his true dream. This order is what makes Venom furious, what makes him punch that mirror: he was in many ways given the same mission as the Boss. If he cannot defeat Solid Snake, he must die. He must sacrifice himself so that Big Boss can carry on with his plans. He has to give up his identity, his face, his emotions, his ideology, his life; all of it to Big Boss. No one will ever know who he was, no one will ever know what he did. He will go down in history as a criminal, as a monster who instigated an armed uprising and almost brought the world to nuclear disaster.
And Venom accepts his mission. He convinces Solid Snake that he is the real Big Boss by feeding that information to Gray Fox and then by telling Snake himself. He gives killing Solid Snake an honest shot, but he also makes sure that if he goes down, everyone thinks it is Big Boss who went down.
The Metal Gear series is also about what controls people, what is passed down. Venom Snake passes down nothing, not his genes, not his memes, nothing. All of it is taken by Big Boss. In going through with Zero's scheme, Big Boss does exactly what he has always stood against: he used a soldier for his own gains. He is a hypocrite and a coward who erases one his best men from the face of history just to save his own ass.
Again, what does all of this have to do with MGSV?
MGSV completely recontextualizes everything we knew of Big Boss's and his life. Before the Big Boss trilogy (MGS3, PW, GZ/TPP) all we knew of him came from second-hand sources who were given information fabricated by Zero, Big Boss, and everyone else who worked to help build Big Boss's legend. We thought the goal of the Big Boss trilogy was to be a Darth Vader story, to show the man's fall from hero to villain. But Metal Gear is never so black and white. With MGSV, we see what the real intention of the Big Boss trilogy was: to deflate the legend. Big Boss was never a hero, was never a legendary soldier. What he built was built on the shoulders of countless others. He was also a hypocrite and egomaniac who imposed his own ideology on others, and ultimately, was no different from Zero. Thematically, Metal Gear is about ideology gone astray, how good intentions change and warp over time, corrupted by legends and ego. The Phantom Pain fits right into this, recontextualizing Big Boss's fall entirely into a man who became consumed by his own legend and ideology. Big Boss and Zero had competing ideologies, but they both fell prey to the same sinful desires. They made the same mistakes in life, and if the Patriot AI are the inheritors of Zero's will, then the Snakes are the inheritors of Big Boss's.
In MGS4, during his last moments, Big Boss realizes the mistakes he has made in life. He ends Zero and ends himself, voluntarily destroys their competing and destructive ideologies and legends so that they may not grow again. He tells Snake the lesson the Boss tried to impart on him so many years earlier: lay down your gun and live. No more legends, no more ideologies. Leave the world as it is and respect the will of others. That is exactly what Solid Snake does, thus making him and Big Boss antithetical to one another. Solid Snake was the true protagonist of this series, and with MGSV, we finally see how.
Here's my rough timeline of events as assembled by clues from MGSV and other games
- Big Boss goes into a coma; Zero commissions his Phantom
- Big Boss accepts this and builds Outer Heaven under a new identity. Venom Snake, under the identity of Big Boss, builds Diamond Dogs in Africa. MGSV happens.
- Big Boss lets Venom Snake in on the plan and the two begin working together. Venom assumes a new identity and becomes leader of Outer Heaven; Big Boss resumes the title of Big Boss
- Diamond Dogs, Big Boss, Ocelot, and Kaz fold into the US military/Cipher/Patriot structure. Big Boss becomes leader of FOXHOUND
- The Outer Heaven uprising occurs; Venom Snake receives his final mission: to kill Solid Snake, or die for the Big Boss legend
- Venom Snake accepts his mission and dies; Big Boss goes into hiding and builds Zanzibar Land
- MG2 happens
I'm sad to see that it's over, but glad about how it went. Metal Gear Solid was the first game I ever played and beat on my own. I remember struggling with so much of it, my older brother watching and refusing to help, telling me that I have to do it on my own. I beat my head against the wall fighting Liquid and REX for days. My mother made some fucking good brownies on the day I defeated REX. She doesn't give a fuck about videogames, she just likes baking. However, playing the end of Meat Gear Solid as a 9 year old while eating some delicious brownies remains one of my favorite video games memories. This series is fucking stupid and I think about it too much, but I love it and if you can get past the bee men and convoluted plots and oftentimes clunky dialogue, there's something smart there at the core of it all.
Also, please don't take this post as some sort of proclamation that Kojima had all this shit planned out. I'm sure half the things I pointed out were pure accident, and though I do think Metal Gear tells a coherent story and delivers an understandable message, it does so in such a convoluted manner that you basically have to love it or hate it. He made it all up as he went along, but it does sort-of fit together.
I look forward to whatever comes next for Kojima and I'm glad this stupid, wonderful series got the chance to exist, and against all odds, had a chance to go out on a great note.
Feel free to add your own analysis, theories, and discussion here.
Yes, I have to keep a fucking change log for this thing. Thanks, Kojima.
- I changed some stuff about Big Boss's motivations during Metal Gear 1 to better fit in with what we are presented in that game. What I was saying before was in contradiction to some of what was shown to us.
- Added back in links to the Peace Walker videos. I tried to embed them, but failed miserably.
- Fixed some typos and spelling stuff
- Changed a portion early on where I erroneously said that it was real Big Boss standing in the reflection of the mirror. I was thrown off because Venom's robot arm collides with a real arm when the mirror shatters. I should probably learn how reflections work before trying to analyze all of Metal Gear. However, it's still a meaningful shot.
- I made another gigantic post a little later covering some of the meta-commentary of MGSV. I'd like to point you towards my discussions about MGSV telling the story of the people who helped Big Boss from behind the scenes, because we as players are included in that list. In many ways, MGSV lets us tell our story in this game unlike any Metal Gear before.