Continuing a diary series in which an MGS first-timer plays The Phantom Pain.
On the one hand, the openness and rogue weather of Metal Gear Solid V’s second zone is a spectacular, tactics-altering change from the dusty, mountainous, barren Afghanistan I’ve spent dozens of hours in. On the other, no, it’s different, it’s not the same, it’s all weird, I hate it I hate it I hate it.
If you want to go into the game completely clean, the below piece spoils what that location is, but doesn’t cover any plot stuff.
The feeling, when I left Afghanistan for Angola in Africa, was that I had when I moved into a new zone in World of Warcraft, way back when. The space I’d been in had become so familiar, so peppered with recognisable landmarks and dangers, that it felt like home. I knew what was where and what the dynamic would be from almost anywhere. Admittedly, there was probably some Stockholm syndrome going on, especially in the case of the endless, dry expanse of The Barrens, but it was always sad to leave somewhere I’d spent so long in. Afghanistan was no different. This was a place I’d walked, ridden and driven across endlessly, its initially alien landscape slowly coalescing into somewhere I knew intimately. I’d been to the same bases time and again, liberated the same guard posts over and over, and I knew the particular challenges each offered on sight.
At the same time, slight ennui was setting in, and I was all too aware of the game’s shortcuts and limitations. Oh, that base I emptied of life half an hour ago is now magically re-staffed by people who don’t seem to have the slightest fear it will happen again? Oh, I’ve either got to call in an expensive chopper or go the massively long way around because Snake can’t work out how to climb up a rock only slightly taller than all the rocks he can climb up? Oh, that massive door which conceals [redacted] is just staying shut and my character won’t even try to open it until Plot O’Clock?
Perhaps I’ll be sent back for later missions, and the option to return is always there, but right now all that was left to do in Afghanistan was hoovering: cleaning up optional objectives, chasing S ratings or finessing my staff roster with endless balloon abductions. I spent a while doing this, before realising that I was falling out of love with the game. It had become about grinding, rather than about experimenting. It was time to go. That bittersweet mingled feeling of anticipation and regret I’ve experienced whenever I’ve moved house. Excitement tinged with loss.
So into Angola, with its lines of trees, unbordered crop fields, precariously open spaces and sudden, violent downpours. With its beached battleships and muddy inclines, with its waterfall climbs and oddly ‘Nam movie-like vistas, with its donkey herds and its grisly remnants of recent atrocity.
It wasn’t home. I don’t know its geography, and I don’t know where is safe and where is deadly, I don’t have the mountains as my shield but at the same time I don’t have them as my obstacle. It will be home, in time, but right now I feel destabilised. This is good, really. I’m exploring, testing, rather than following a routine again. I am here to learn the place, to see how new rules work when the land is flat and the rain is heavy, rather than merely to go through the motions in search of bonuses. I couldn’t even interrogate anyone until I’d found and abducted a relevant interpreter. All was mystery.
I miss the familiar topography of Afghanistan, but I needed to leave for my own good. I was killing the game by staying there. Oh sure, for some people the 100% rating – which absolutely requires grinding away at the same missions again and again – is a key part of the game, and exhausting Afghanistan is thus a necessary part of their experience. Not for me: I want wonder and tension, discovery and uncertainty. I don’t want to be a machine, I want to be a stranger in a strange land, and I want to be able to laugh rather than curse when things go wrong. Africa, then, was well-timed. It spirited me away from a machine life, interrupted the rising ennui that has seen me quit MMO after MMO.
So, back to Africa, back to a map I barely know. What disasters and triumphs await me in towns I’ve yet to visit? And how different will it feel now I’m regularly travelling with a buddy rather than on my own? This feels like a true second act, not a simple escalation. It’s gonna take a lot to drag me away from you.