How should we interpret the story of MGSV? The expert speaks![vol.1]

●A 19th-century novelist and a 21st-century game designer

-- We want to get your interpretation of the story of MGSV, but first, we have a question to ask.

Yano: Sure, go ahead.

-- It's about something that happened a little after MGSV's release. Hideo Kojima tweeted a comment that MGSV should be forever an "empty space." How should we interpret this concept of an empty space?

*Translated from Hideo Kojima's Japanese Twitter feed:
"V liberates Snake from the bonds of fate, and by passing the baton to the player - who was previously bound to Snake - they can bring the legend full circle. This parting of ways should not become some phantom pain, but an empty space that, by remaining unfilled, serves as motivation for the player to move forward."

Yano: That's a difficult question to start off with! (laughs) I think that's Kojima-san saying, "There's this empty space, and it's never meant to be filled. There will always be a hero in that space. It's because it's empty that we have room to move forward and make progress. That space is at the heart of V." That's how Kojima-san wraps up his interpretation of the MGSV novelization. So what is this empty space? An important motif in MGSV is Moby-Dick, and its titular white whale symbolizes an empty space.

-- In that case, perhaps we should start by discussing the connections to the novel Moby-Dick.

Yano: Absolutely, I think that's a good place to begin. Moby-Dick is an epic novel published by Herman Melville in 1851. Everyone's heard of Moby-Dick and knows roughly that it's about Captain Ahab and his quest for revenge against Moby Dick, the gigantic sperm whale that bit off his leg. We know the story entails him guiding the whaling ship Pequod on a journey to hunt and kill Moby Dick, all of which is narrated by a character called Ishmael.

-- Having played the game, all those names certainly ring a bell! (laughs)

Yano: Exactly. The player gets called Ahab in MGSV, and the mystery figure who guides him calls himself Ishmael. The chopper that becomes Snake's home away from home is codenamed Pequod, and the fake Swedish development studio used to announce the mysterious new project "The Phantom Pain" in 2012 was called Moby Dick Studio (this later turned out to be a ruse by Hideo Kojima).

-- So why the references to Moby-Dick?

Yano: Kojima-san actually explained to me personally back in 2011 how MGSV would be structured. At that point, all the elements were already in place; the themes of phantom pain, the vocal cord parasites, race, and retaliation, and of course the Moby-Dick motif. However, at that point Ishmael was actually Huey. Snake was Ahab, and Diamond Dogs' enemy was America. It was set up so that the story, being told by Huey (Ishmael) as an American citizen, would be biased toward the American perspective, showing America as being right the whole time. Why the narrator (Ishmael) role changed from being Huey to Big Boss is something we'll get to later.

-- That's a pretty huge revelation to come out with all of a sudden! Let's look at these points one by one: To begin with, tell us more about the Moby-Dick connection.

Yano: A little before the novel Moby-Dick came out, in the 17th to 18th centuries, whaling was a worldwide industry. Rather than being just a food source, whales were a source of energy that kept the world going. Of course their oil was prized, but also other parts such as the bones and baleen (hair-like filter in the mouth) played an important role in people's lifestyles. The baleen for example was used to make the frames for hoop skirts and corsets, and served as sofa springs and umbrella spokes. World maps are thought to have come about thanks to the whaling trade. In short, whaling was inseparable from people's lives at the time. You could even say it had "infiltrated" their lives.

-- Whales as a source of energy... That's pretty hard to imagine from a modern perspective.

Yano: Of course whaling began to die out, and in the present day is moving toward being outlawed altogether. And naturally the reason it died out was that other energy sources replaced whales. Coal gave rise to steam locomotion, which gave way to crude oil, and then electrical power, and now we live in an age of nuclear power. Basically whales back then occupied the same vital position as nuclear energy does today. Apparently even as late as World War I, whale oil was being used as an ingredient in explosives. As an energy source that was repurposed for destruction, it's again the same as nuclear power.

-- Interesting. So there are plenty of parallels.

Yano: MGS fans will know what I mean by this; on the surface level, MGS titles always have the anti-war, anti-nuclear armament themes, but they also deal with a particular thing that defines the times, the system of the world on the whole, if you like. At the root of that, if we think of what power drives the world, nowadays it would be nuclear energy. Tracing the path back from there leads directly to whales as that past energy source, so in a way I think it was inevitable that MGS would explore this theme: the light and dark of energy. Progress in energy casts an ever brighter light to guide our progress as a global society, but the brighter it grows, so the shadows also get darker. Kojima-san has always been one to tenaciously drag this fact out into the open. This applies to nuclear energy, to genetics, and to culture itself.

-- So both Moby-Dick and MGSV use whales as an allegory for the powers making the world go round.

Yano: What's important is that Kojima-san didn't just transplant the motif from Moby-Dick. I think it's more a case of these two creators, Melville and Kojima, relentlessly thinking through the way that the world works, and arriving at the same answer. So we have a 19th-century author and 21st-century game designer pursuing the same thing. From this perspective, I think it's fair to say that Kojima-san's imagination has made a connection with world literature. And of course, if we look at the game from the energy perspective, it's obvious that Afghanistan and Africa would be the settings for the events in MGSV. Each produces oil, and each is a source of rare metals and other mined resources. Come to think of it, this year Mamoru Hosoda's The Boy and the Beast also used Moby-Dick as a motif. I guess the world is full of coincidences!

-- So would you say conflict over energy is a key theme of MGSV?

Yano: Yes, I think so. And since it also includes this concept of the "vocal cord parasites," it extends to conflict over biological resources as well. That's expressed in Skull Face's plan to render nuclear weapons inert, and then control the world with his vocal cord parasites in that vacuum of power. Organisms become a kind of energy, and could define the world just like other forms of energy do. And that's not a hollow theory - in whales, the world has already seen organisms be its principle form of energy. Only now, instead of giant whales, the organisms that act as energy, or as weapons, are tiny microbes and bacteria too small to see with the naked eye. 21st-century imagination reaches not for the massive, but the micro.

-- And we have this chain of ambition and revenge revolving around this tremendous energy. So that's where Kojima-san saw Moby-Dick fitting in to MGSV.

Yano: Something I find interesting is how Melville, in the book, ponders how ladies in hoop skirts made with whale baleen were essentially being swallowed by a whale ("And as those ancient dames moved about gaily, though in the jaws of the whale, as you may say..."). That kind of gradual and undetectable "infiltration" into our everyday lives connects with Kojima-san's concept of the Patriots' systems creeping into our society to the point where we actually live inside a system of cultural control. Moby-Dick really is a Metal Gear kind of story. Maybe that should be the other way around. (laughs)

-- Moby-Dick and MGSV also share the theme of revenge in addition to energy.

Yano: Yes. Though Moby-Dick is a whaling chronicle, it's also a tale of revenge. And it's not just Ahab that plans to take revenge. Starbuck, the first mate, comes close to taking revenge for the way Ahab almost killed him during their voyage. But he can't bring himself to shoot Ahab in his sleep. He tries to convince himself that since Ahab is likely to kill the whole ship's crew in his mad quest for vengeance; it is "for the men's sake" that the deed be done. Over in MGSV, we have Quiet who can't bring herself to kill Snake, and Huey, who insists that everything he's done, has been to aid Diamond Dogs, who he still claims are his comrades. And of course, we have Snake, who (although he's left with little choice in order to stop the infection) must kill his men to save the rest.

-- Maybe it's just that revenge works that way, but there definitely are lots of parallels! Personal revenge becomes revenge on behalf of your compatriots, and that leads to a cycle of revenge that soon envelops the world.

Yano: And even Moby Dick, being chased by Ahab, eventually aims to get revenge. As Skull Face stated in MGSV, the world is an endless loop of action and reaction. It's always an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. True to that principle, Moby Dick eventually turns on Ahab and fights back. Like Moby-Dick, MGSV is also a tale of revenge. The war for control of energy is a catalyst for that revenge. Whoever can control the energy that defines the world; has the power to control the world. There are plots and counter-plots, betrayals, and deaths. That's the true breeding ground for repeated acts of retaliation. But all rulers, once they've achieved power, go back and rewrite the bloody path they took to get there with a cover story that makes them seem right. All the plotting and revenge is craftily concealed. If MGSV had been made under the original concept of Huey being Ishmael, it would have been a great deal darker, and would have left fans far more dissatisfied.

-- Right. After all, from Huey's perspective he was the only sane person in Diamond Dogs. To him, they're nothing but a murderous militia bent on revenge. So what was the actual reason for changing Ishmael (the narrator) to Big Boss?

Yano: To answer that, let's start by clarifying what Ahab represents. In the real world, the character of Captain Ahab has often been used to symbolize America's idea of justice. The "Sons of Liberty" that are the American people believe that their pursuit of happiness and liberty can grant freedom to the whole world. At the root of that belief are the memories of their shame in the eyes of the Old World. Although Ahab has only his personal revenge, when the character is superimposed onto American righteousness, he serves as an analogy for how justification for revenge based on instinctive national memory is converted into a just cause. Ahab's enemy is Moby Dick, but that image of the white whale has been applied to the Soviet Union, or in the years following 9/11, to Iraq. America, like Ahab, sees itself as a hero.

-- So for Diamond Dogs, Ahab is like an icon for justifying their fight. Similar to what America has done over the years.

Yano: But in MGSV, it's actually America that's the overarching Moby Dick. Big Boss is Ahab in the sense that he's been maimed by America in the past. Big Boss turns his yearning for revenge into bonds that bind him together with comrades who share his wish to retaliate against America (or its self-righteous justifications). However, from America's point of view it's Big Boss that's Moby Dick. So what we can see in MGSV is actually an attempt to depict battle between Ahab and Ahab, or perhaps Moby Dick and Moby Dick. The America Ahab leans on its usual crutch of the pursuit of happiness and liberty (in terms of maintaining global stability) as a justification. Meanwhile, the Big Boss Ahab can't depend on a similar logic. In counterbalancing America's stance, he inevitably makes himself a "villain." In fact he has to act the villain, to expose the fundamental villainy that's hidden in any retaliatory act presented under a righteous justification.

-- So from each side's perspective, their fight is justified, but Big Boss doesn't try to conceal his motives with a righteous justification. He simply keeps building up his private "army without a nation" for the purpose of revenge, and ends up making the world his enemy.

Yano: To be more precise, the aim is to reveal that the system the world runs on defines Big Boss's existence as "evil." That's why MGSV tells you distinctly that Ahab is you, the player. It says, now you have to experience first-hand the absurdity of being branded a villain by the manipulating ways of the global status quo. And once you've experienced that, take the experience and use it. For that message to be put across, it can't be Huey telling it, since he's on the American side. It has to be Big Boss himself that delivers the message.

● What is the true aim behind the online FOB mode?

-- Even though the core gameplay is all about expanding your force, in FOB missions we have this option to disarm nuclear weapons. What do you see as the thinking behind this?

Yano: First off, let's think about this from a time perspective. MGSV is set in 1984, when the Cold War structure was coming apart at the seams due to factors such as Reagan's Star Wars program, and the Soviet Union beginning to show signs of collapse. But we've lived through the history that followed this period, and so we know that fighting in the name of righteousness and fighting in the name of revenge are really two sides of the same coin. The Cold War has ended, the Iraq War has come and gone, and yet the world is in a terrible state right now. If nations continue to appropriate the heroic archetype of one man's revenge and turning it into a justification for war, then eventually the world will be destroyed.

-- Living in the 21st century we've witnessed that at times ourselves. It's been questioned if America's idea of righteousness is actually right.

Yano: I think Kojima-san wanted players to experience MGSV as Big Boss in order to see how the real world works - that retribution and this cycle of revenge are the basis for all war and conflict. What the player experiences after the end of Chapter 2 is the sort of peace that can't yet be achieved in the real world. I think that's the point of the online FOB mode.

-- That's an interesting interpretation of that mode, since it was created as a player-versus-player mode.

Yano: Chapter 2 is about having the player go through some extremely tough experiences and see how well they can fulfill the role of Big Boss. To an outside observer, Diamond Dogs is a kind of terrorist organization. They're an extremely dangerous group of individuals who believe they're not doing anything wrong and use force to try to solve conflicts. I think the online FOB mode is about considering what needs to be done to end a cycle of retribution.

-- As of today (November 19th, 2015) it hasn't been triggered yet, but we've heard that if all nuclear weapons in the online FOB mode are decommissioned, a special event occurs.

Yano: In the online FOB mode, players can come together, even if they disagree in their interpretation of the game, to decommission nukes. In the real world, conflict created by race, religion, or ideological difference will probably never go away, but I think people can still come together to get rid of nukes. At the very least, we can now do this in a game. Even in a fictional world, whatever that world makes you feel is “real” to you. Thinking about these sorts of things is surely the essence of the online FOB mode. And one valid response is to feel that nuclear abolition is impossible. This is each player's story to create for themselves.

-- Players creating the story themselves... That's pretty deep for a piece of entertainment.

Yano: I think it's a sincere attempt by Kojima-san to remind players they can change the world. At the minimum, using the open world of MGSV, I wonder if there's ever been a story this compelling and crafted with such good faith.

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