Unpacking The Phantom Pain's Wild First Hour

Unpacking The Phantom Pain's Wild First Hour

Or: Snake and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

By now, most of you out there have probably had the opportunity to play The Phantom Pain's prologue. And, based on reactions I've seen floating around the Internet this morning, the most common question about this segment has been "Just what in the hell was that?"

I had similar thoughts upon finishing The Phantom Pain's prologue during its preview event back in May, though I was barred from saying much about it thanks to the many terrifying NDAs that currently bear my signature. After that first hour passed—and before the true game began—I'd feared this highly scripted and linear adventure stood as the new face of Metal Gear, and the open-world experience shown to me at E3 2014 simply acted as a ruse to play the press like puppets—it worked for Metal Gear Solid 2, didn't it? Either that, or this new form of Metal Gear was a result of the dust-up between Konami and Hideo Kojima, which could have been in the works for years, as far as we know. (And we'll probably never know.)

Of course, after those previews ran in early June, the world knew Metal Gear Solid V would be the open-world game Kojima promised, even if said articles couldn't go into detail about its semi-baffling prologue. Seemingly, this is the most we've ever known about a Metal Gear game before release. Secrecy used to be Konami's M.O. for this series, but they (and Kojima) have been pretty open about The Phantom Pain, to the point where popular streamers were allowed to showcase the game publicly weeks before release. So, if this 60-minute head-fake couldn't possibly fool anyone, what was the intent behind it?

That's not to say it didn't fool anyone, though. This morning, my social media feeds were peppered with disappointed folks upset with the non-interactive qualities of the prologue, thinking it was indicative of how the remaining game would play out. These people aren't gullible, mind you; they just weren't following pre-release coverage—understandable if you've been waiting five years to play the next Metal Gear Solid game. But even we journalists can be guilty of not doing our research. After the first day of our preview session, I talked to my former 1UP co-worker Jose Otero (now at IGN) about my confusion over the prologue, and he assured me this content didn't just come from nowhere. This chunk of MGSV actually emerged during the 2012 Spike Video Game Awards under the title "The Phantom Pain" (sans Metal Gear Solid), with "Moby Dick Studios" and "Joakim Mogren" taking the place of Konami and Kojima. Needless to say, it didn't really fool anyone.

Since Metal Gear Solid V has been out in the wild for roughly 72 hours now (thanks to certain retailers breaking street dates), I'm sure all of the prologue's narrative mysteries have been solved by now: Who Ishmael is, why you're being pursued by The Human Torch, and whether or not the Moby Dick analogies will persist for the next 100 hours—and I'm guessing they will. Kojima being Kojima, though, the inclusion of this wildly different prologue—both in mechanics and tone—couldn't have been an arbitrary decision. While it's ostensibly meant to throw a spotlight on Snake's powerlessness after his prolonged coma, I sense a little something more lurking under the hood.

We could be entering tinfoil hat territory, but, after playing it again, I see The Phantom Pain's prologue as a sort of parody of the triple-A video game experience, quite possibly intended to be a true fake-out before the business of PR got in the way. Metal Gear games are typically known for their complex mechanics engineered with every possible player action in mind, but The Phantom Pain's prologue stands as a shockingly different experience. A good portion of this segment is spent merely holding a single direction on the analog controller while watching various animations play out—it's an experience much closer to David Cage than Hideo Kojima. And even when you regain control, this early section keeps you on a tight leash, with your buddy Ishmael barking out orders and doing most of the dirty work himself. Again, Metal Gear games are known best for their multiple solutions and emphasis on player freedom; here, you keep pushing forward down the only paths you're allowed to travel.

To top it off, this prologue ends with one of the most overused and unwelcome set pieces in triple-A games: the infamous turret sequence. Sure, you're pumping shotgun rounds into a man on fire charging at you on the back of a unicorn, but a turret sequence is a turret sequence. It's this inclusion of so many atypically non-Metal Gear elements that has me thinking there's a lot more intentionality to this prologue than what's evident at first glance. I can definitely feel some echoes of P.T. in that first hour, seeing as the prologue basically plays out like a semi-supernatural slasher movie, but it's just so different and divorced from the rest of The Phantom Pain that Kojima has to be saying something. Even if Metal Gear Solid 2 switched Snake for Raiden 25% through the game, you were still doing the same sneaking, tranqing, and neck-snapping. What's contained within The Phantom Pain's prologue bears absolutely no resemblance to the rest of the game—at least, the 15 hours I've spent with it so far.

Even if it's not quite the fake-out seen in Sons of Liberty—a feat that social media makes impossible today—The Phantom Pain's strange prologue definitely has plenty of people talking. Metal Gear Solid V could have easily began in Afghanistan with the rescue of Kaz—the game's true "tutorial" section—but a Kojima game wouldn't be a Kojima game without surprising design decisions. We'll likely never get a real answer from the man himself, but The Phantom Pain's prologue only serves as further proof that Kojima wants nothing more than to have us scratching our heads.

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