There are many war games. There are few games about war. But the Metal Gear series, helmed by auteur developer Hideo Kojima for three decades, has always been the latter.
His purported final chapter of the 40-million-selling franchise, the 1984-set Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, is named after the absurd agony people can still feel after losing limbs. Kojima told Game Informer he wanted to depict how "even if you come back [from war], there's some pain with you."
Rather than regular armies, Phantom Pain features private military contractors in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan, where one of your first missions is to rescue an Islamic Mujahideen fighter and the Angolan Civil War, a brutal Cold War proxy.
Kojima's games are also filled with thrilling battlefields to fight in, but it makes sense he'd have a complicated relationship with combat since Japan itself has one. Though samurais and ninjas remain historically romanticized, the nation has felt the horror of war like few others.
Kojima was born in 1963, a decade after the U.S. occupation ended and two decades after Japan's imperial ambitions went up in a pair mushroom clouds, leaving literal shadows burned into Hiroshima and Nagasaki sidewalks.
"My parents were born in the 1930s and they experienced the air raids on Tokyo," Kojima said during a 2012 talk at the Smithsonian. "I got a lot of influence from them and I think inherited a little of that anti-war sentiment from them. When I went into the industry and started making my own games, I really wanted to carry over this message of anti-war, anti-nuclear proliferation into my games."
Kojima was also born a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis, the aftermath of which helps kick off his story, chronologically speaking, in 2004's Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. The first Metal Gear game came out in 1987 — the year Reagan challenged Gorbachev to "Tear down this wall!," and when a nuclear holocaust still felt inevitably nigh.
It was one of the first war games where the goal was to avoid conflict — though players determine their own style, it remains preferable to put enemies to sleep rather than kill them — birthing the stealth genre in its wake. It introduced black-ops soldier Solid Snake and his commanding officer Big Boss. Set in a then-future 1995, the goal was to infiltrate Outer Heaven, a "nation" inside southern Africa controlled by PMCs, and destroy a weapon of mass destruction, the titular bi-pedal nuclear tank known as a Metal Gear. But Big Boss turned out to actually be the leader of Outer Heaven, where he was trying to establish an ideology-free homeland for professional soldiers.
Over the years, the series became more elaborate and science-fictional (artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, cloning, nanobots, etc.) as it unspooled a dense story set between the mid-'60s and the mid-2010s, and featuring nefarious organizations with names like the Patriots, Militaire Sans Frontiers, Desperado Enforcement LLC and Sons of Liberty. The latter were the villains of the 2001 entry Metal Gear Solid 2, in which the Big Bad was the U.S. president and the hero a former child soldier.
Though Big Boss was the bad guy in all the games set after the original, he's also the playable protagonist in the prequel games like Peace Walker and yes, Phantom Pain, where he's voiced by Kiefer Sutherland. But it was a philosophical betrayal by a corrupt U.S. government that precipitated this shift.
Over the years, Kojima's grey-shaded view of war has also been disquietingly prescient, predicting a major terror attack in New York, the surveillance state, information warfare, billionaire cabals and drone warfare.
In Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, released in 2008 but set in 2014, America's now-familiar state of perpetual war was explained as an economic business model. "War has changed," explained Solid Snake. "It's no longer about nations, ideologies or ethnicity. It's an endless series of proxy battles, fought by mercenaries and machines. War, and its consumption of life, has become a well-oiled machine."
In MGSV's 2014 prologue game Ground Zeroes, Kojima even took on Guantanamo, telling The Guardian, "Hollywood continues to present the U.S. army as being the good guys, always defeating the aliens or foreigners... I am trying to present an alternate view in these games."
Phantom Pain's Northern Kabul setting itself, juxtaposed with Afghanistan's more recent past, reveals the futility of war, given that the occupiers may change but the occupation does not. But the game's overarching theme, as symbolized by its loop-closing story of vengeance corrupting Big Boss, is Kojima's warning that war's "false spiral" of revenge "will be carried on to next generation."