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Disquiet: Metal Gear Solid V - The Phantom Pain

It's oh so quiet

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It’s been days since I wanted to talk about anything other than Metal Gear Solid [official site]. My sister is probably sick of this. We’re very close but live far apart so we tend to speak almost every day, not so much about our lives as about the things that distract us from our lives. She had no interest in Metal Gear Solid, but eventually my incessant chatter caused her to look into The Phantom Pain. I should have predicted the response.

“I watched a trailer for it last night. What’s the deal with the boob lady?”

I’d been talking about the game for days but hadn’t mentioned Quiet, your sniper buddy. I had been raving about the things I liked about the game, and when the conversation turned to flaws, it turns out it’s the small things that disturb the experience more for me than those bigger talking points.

There are spoilers about Quiet, including the end of her story, in the second half of this feature. Another warning precedes them.

I had told my sister about the time when I fired off two sniper rounds into a base from the crest of a hill and then shifted to a distant position, unseen in the night, and watched as the enemy lit up the area with flares and sent out search parties to check behind every rock. And about spending an in-game 24 hour cycle watching the inhabitants of a base while remaining unseen, occasionally causing a slight disturbance to distract a couple of soldiers, learning their habits while attempting to convince them that the area is haunted. About having a helicopter play Thomas Dolby as it plucks me out of the danger zone. Hanging out with a dog and living inside a box.

All of these things happened. All of these things are true.

Until the last couple of days, I’d spent most of my time playing rather than progressing, pushing the behaviour of the AI and the world as far as I can and experimenting with the edges of things. Occasionally the game disappoints me.

I was initially delighted when a stolen truck parked across road attracted the attention of a passing driver. He pulled up, clambered out of his own vehicle, and went to check on his fellow driver. Finding nobody inside (the driver was, in fact, en route to Mother Base – I’d Fulton’d the fuck out of him), he was puzzled and I was hoping to see him call in backup to remove the vehicle, either returning it to base or driving it off the map. I hoped that he’d at least have to maneuver his own vehicle around the empty one. The game is mostly very good at responding to these nudges and interruptions to its routines, but in this particular instance, the soldier almost literally hand-waved the problem out of existence. The unnecessary truck vanished in what looked like the world’s most feeble explosion that seemed to fall out of his palm and the soldier went on his way.

It was the first evidence of a portable reset button I’d seen; a device to remove material or ignore events that prevent the machinery of the world from ticking along. I frowned and complained and felt as if the whole house of cards were about to fall down. If the man can make the truck vanish, then what’s to say that anything is truly simulated?

I was sharing these concerns with my sister. She was slightly concerned – I’d found one thing to criticise in a week of playing and was acting as if everything had turned to shit.

“Remember the flares lighting up the mountain?” She said.

“It was a hill. I don’t think the horse could handle mountains. And come to think of it, I’m not too pleased with the way that horse pops into existence whenever I whistle for it. Why doesn’t it move across the map like a proper horse? What’s the story there?”

“Maybe it’s a robot horse. With a teleporter. Maybe it uses those balloons you love so much?”

“The balloons are for extracting not transporting. JESUS.”

“Robot jesus? Is that a thing? In the game?” Mockery.

Turns out that breathless enthusiasm of the sort I’d exhibited for a week wasn’t enough to convince my sister that the game is interesting. Even though everything I’d said was true, she needed to hear the doubts and hear about the flaws before being convinced to take the plunge. That’s when she watched the trailer.

“Oh. I watched a trailer for it last night. What’s the deal with the boob lady?”

The boob lady! To be clear, my sister wasn’t confused that Quiet existed and dressed as she did, she was confused that I hadn’t mentioned Quiet at all. I’d taken the time to go off on a tangent about the woes of teleporting horses but I hadn’t thought it necessary to even so much as touch on Quiet as a character.

I’d talked about my sniper buddy, who I hoped would graduate to tranquiliser darts in the near future so that I wouldn’t be leaving mass graves in my wake, but for all the detail in my descriptions of her, she was little more than a scope and a trigger finger. A great buddy within the game’s systems, and one with whom I shared many stories and sorties.

That sums up my thoughts about Quiet. I’d rather she were just a scope and a trigger finger rather than the weird set of questions and awkwardly phrased responses that Kojima Productions have managed to bundle into a bra and battlethong. As written and directed, she jars with the bravado and bonhomie of the Mother Base buddies, rarely fitting into the serio-comic tone that The Phantom Pain finds in the gaps between military horror, wacky warbrothers, heroic adulation and endless audiovisual gags. I’m going to move deep into spoiler territory now.

Quiet, in the middle of this bizarre alternate history, is barely involved in Mother Base’s group dynamic and rarely raises a smile (there is one scene where she has a waterfight with Snake, which almost manages to be sweet once the initial striptease is done with). In the field, she’s an effective piece of military hardware and back at the base she’s an awkward space that everyone tries to look and talk around. In a game that manages to make a bear hanging from a balloon in a warzone seem like a reasonable and purposeful sight, Quiet is an awkward blindspot. Her state of undress isn’t addressed for a good while, which led me to believe that, like Ocelot’s military-cowboy-hipster-chic, it’s just the way she rolls. If that were the case, I’d still think she looked daft but I’d shrug and move on. I spend a lot of time trying to make any customisable character I control look as daft as possible after all.

The justification for her clothing, when it comes, is the sort of grim nonsense that immediately strips her of agency as well as a uniform, making it clear that she has no choice in the matter. She walks around in her undies, we learn, because the parasite that provides her superheroic abilities also means that she breathes through her skin rather than her lungs, forcing her to have as much exposed flesh as possible. Sure, you could argue that she’s learned to accessorise around her condition, but there’s no joy or flamboyance there, and more desperation than confidence. Even when lashing out at those who do her wrong, she attracts sympathy rather than respect. A caged enigma rather than a companion.

So, what’s the deal with the boob lady?

It’s all a bit shit. At best, it’s a laboured attempt to insert and then question the inclusion of some hotness – to turn sexuality and nudity into shame – at worst its eye-candy laced with poison. Her story ends with a sequence in which she is a victim of sexual violence. Captured by the enemy, she is dressed in a prison uniform, which covers her skin and prevents her from breathing. In her weakened state, she is unable to fight back as a soldier chokes her, pushing her head beneath the water in a trough. It’s only after that, when she is unconscious and he starts to remove her clothes, that he empowers her and allows her to turn the tables.

The scene is an ultra-condensed form of the rape-revenge plot that was a staple of seventies exploitation films like I Spit On Your Grave and Last House On The Left. Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, and the later film adaptations, offered a newsagent- and multiplex-friendly version of the same as an origin story of sorts. I can see the argument that there is something empowering about the victim’s revenge and refusal to be broken, but the idea that the abuse is the necessary trigger for that empowerment bothers me whenever I encounter this particular narrative turn. With Quiet, we see a close-up of her face, still and dead, and she is resurrected when the soldier who choked and drowned her goes on to strip and violate her. That is the moment that reactivates her as a figure of furious vengeance – a figure whose freshly exposed curves the camera captures in slow motion as she acrobatically murders her captors.

She is, to the bitter end, defined by her otherness and suffering. Her sexy, sexy suffering.

The game invests so heavily in the credible simulation of even the most ridiculous aspects of its world and so little in its characters that Quiet has fallen between the gaps of my experience. At its best, the plot questions the way the world works, at a fundamental mechanical level, rather than the motivations of individual characters. Personally, I’m more concerned about the teleporting horse and the vanishing vehicles than anything hidden on tapes or in dialogue sequences. Those animals and vehicles are things that inform my understanding of the game and its systems. Quiet’s depiction doesn’t intrude on what I love about the game, and I’m accustomed to accepting and acknowledging a certain level of unnecessary bullshit or tone deaf unpleasantness in the pop culture I enjoy. Obviously this is easier for me to do than it might be for you, depending on your situation. Regardless, I think it’s always important to acknowledge the existence of the bullshit as well as recognising that it doesn’t necessarily mean that everything around it is a sewer.

Much of Phantom Pain feels underwritten, although shifting the story to tapes rather than cutscenes allows the words to speak for themselves, without the flash of an action sequence or the gaze of the camera to distract. Quiet’s story is unusual because it has such a clearly directed throughline. It’s so clumsily handled, confused and borderline grotesque that, in the end, I was relieved that the on-camera plotting is so lean elsewhere. If that’s the type of story the game cares to show and tell when not letting me create stories of my own, I’m glad to be rid of it. I’m also glad that I can make my own stories with Quiet out in the field, away from the cutscene camera’s intrusive lens. How strange to be saying, of a Metal Gear Solid game, that it wisely concentrates on being an immersive sim rather than indulging its byzantine cutscenes and plots.

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