Sprawled out on a rocky hillside and decked out in tan camo, I peer down on the enemy base with my binoculars and do a sweep of the area. My past failures are still fresh in my mind, and serve as a sharp reminder that pre-mission prep is essential in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain; if I don’t get the lay of the land ahead of time and mark every target, chances are good I’ll wind up dead. My diligent surveillance has revealed that there’s a specialist on patrol at this outpost, someone with a particular skill I need for my next R&D breakthrough back at Mother Base. I set a mark on him and start sneaking into the area.
As I close in on the specialist, I hear him discussing news from back home in Russia with a comrade. They wrap up their conversation and each takes a final drag from his cigarette before they part ways to finish their patrol. It’s in that moment that I strike. The specialist rounds the corner to where I’m lying in wait in the shadows and I grab him before he can cry out. After a quick interrogation that reveals the location of some precious fuel resources, I knock him out and carry him off to quiet place for a Fulton extraction.
The last thirty minutes of gameplay have been exhilarating—I felt like a genuine black ops operative, avoiding detection and accomplishing my objective. And it all took place at a random roadside outpost.
In a game series largely known for it’s grandiose and thought-provoking (if not a bit convoluted) storytelling, my biggest surprise with The Phantom Pain has been my apathy towards the main narrative. Instead, I’ve gained my greatest enjoyment from the emergent narratives created in the space of the game’s sandbox, filled with compelling environments, fantastic AI, and a vast array of destructive and high-tech tools. The story has become even more my own as I formed connections with the soldiers I subdued and recruited.
Ever since the tranquilizer gun was introduced in MGS2, players have been having fun attempting pacifist runs and messing around with the AI. However, in MGSV, pacifism has a purpose. In fact, I found myself hardly ever resorting to the many lethal options at my disposal because it would be a shameful waste of valuable resources to simply murder everyone. Nearly every person that I “befriend” improves my performance in the field that much more through better intelligence, improved weapons, faster resupply, or additional recruiting and resource gathering. It’s far better to recruit than shoot in MGSV, although I won’t comment on the tactics Miller and Ocelot employ to convert everyone over to your side so quickly after being captured (it’s either something hideously sinister or the Diamond Dogs dental plan is really, really good).
The experiences I had capturing soldiers also helped me form a deeper bond with them. I often had to exert additional effort, invest more time, and risk exposure during critical missions in order to capture a soldier with a high rating or particular sets of skills. But taking the time to pursue those side objectives paid off more than I ever expected. Many of the adventures I’ve had so far were much more interesting to me than the pre-written tale of Skulls, Diamonds Dogs, and a Man on Fire.
For example, there was the time that I painstakingly crept around a base, scoping out my objective and marking specialists from a high vantage point. After successfully setting C4 without disturbing so much as a blade of grass, I took down a high-level specialist inside a tent, hoisted him on my back, and prepared to escape. Just as I went to take a step towards freedom, the guard shift changed. I was quickly discovered, and I had to shoot my way out.
Or the time I cleared an entire base full of specialists one by one because I wanted all of their skills. Or the time I rescued a prisoner by hijacking the vehicle using a smoke grenade, leaving the rest of the convoy in bewilderment as we drove away together.
Going off-script can bring rewards beyond the world of gaming. One of the best decisions I ever made in my life involved hitting the reset button on the many of the choices I’d made up to that point. I’d been living the American dream—and growing increasingly dissatisfied with it. I had the house, two cars, a stable job, a wife, two kids, and I was just plain bored. I realized I had been following the standard story for what life should look like and decided that I’d rather write my version. So my wife and I sold our house, cars, and nearly all our possessions and moved to Denmark to write a new and better chapter for us and our kids. It breathed new life into us in ways we never thought were possible.
There’s still tremendous value in reading others’ stories. You gain new perspective and your assumptions can be challenge in a lot of good ways. With that in mind, I’m sure that I’ll eventually get around to seeing where MGSV’s primary tale is headed; after all, the gameplay in the main missions is still top notch and the combat scenarios are interesting. But for the time being I’m content to get lost in my own narratives.