Metal Gear Solid V as a metaphor for narcissism

How video games regulate the creation of the false self

PulledApartFlatWhite
9 min readOct 4, 2023
The Legendary Soldier, Big Boss

A third-person point of view is when a story is told through the narrator addressing characters by name, as they become proxies for the message from author to reader. There is no “I” as the narrator is the “I” and the story is not about them, but the characters they convey. And there is no “you” since the story is also not about you — the reader — but the third party of characters that mediate the author’s “I” and you. In video games, a third-person point of view is when you — the player — sees the character you are controlling from a higher vantage point. Here, you are the third-person behind the wheel, mediating the author and the character.

Phantom Limbs

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is the final installment of the long-running video game series by Hideo Kojima, a cinematic game designer famous for his 4th wall breaks, hammy dialogue, and anti-war message among other things. In the game, you play as Punished “Venom” Snake, superspy soldier extraordinaire, creatively regarded by his/your peers as “Big Boss.” You wake up from a coma in 1984, nine years after a failed assassination attempt on your head. And now the whole world is after you, as you are a patsy for the nuclear paranoia the superpowers have been brewing since the Cold War.

With your private army in ruins, you spend approximately 40 hours in the game recruiting enemy soldiers and rebuilding your military base, all in an effort to enact revenge on the shadowy organization that took everything from you. Along the way, you find out more about the horrors of war, such as encountering child soldiers and discovering how invading nations practically subsume indigenous cultures (and erase their languages). As the game’s subtitle implies, it deals a lot with phantoms, from seeing ghosts of dead comrades to missing limbs, it is a cautionary tale of how revenge doesn’t return the past.

Laying bare its thematic influence from Moby Dick, the game descends into mania midway through, after you get everything you thought you wanted and still be left lacking. Without an external White Whale to fuel your anger, your private army turns the blame inward, as paranoia calls for a patsy to be sacrificed at the stake. You kick your weapons engineer out of the army; one by one you lose the allies you’ve gained and the soldiers you’ve recruited. In the end, there is only yourself, trapped in a war with no end. The game’s structure sometimes feels like a dream, there is no conclusion, and you only wake up having discovered more about yourself. When revenge is not sated, you only have yourself to blame, or in this case, your other self; as it is revealed that, spoiler alert, you have not been playing as Big Boss from the previous Metal Gear games. It turned out that the real Big Boss went into hiding and you are his phantom, you are playing the role of the patsy in a proxy war of his/your own making.

Doublethink

The twist is: your character was just a medic who saved Big Boss’ life 9 years ago, and because of it, you were rewarded with brainwashing and plastic surgery to make you think you’re the one and only Big Boss. That is the last thing the game leaves you with; the phantom pain isn’t physical, it’s psychological. When fans around the world got word of this twist, some were outraged and raced to throw vitriolic anger at Kojima for his copout, this perceived slight and false marketing ploy. They were promised to take control of superspy soldier extraordinaire Big Boss, not be themselves. Yet that was precisely what was given to them, Kojima provided a recipe for every individual player to bake their own cake to eat, to be their own legendary soldier.

From the moment the game starts off and hands you control, it is set in a first-person perspective, meaning you see through the character’s eyes. Only after you leave your hospital bed of 9 years that it becomes third-person for the remainder of the story, as you are no longer your true self, but a stand-in false self with Snake for a name. The game tricks you by even adopting the perspective in cinematically shot cutscenes, separating the camera from Snake, as if you are holding the camera while watching Snake perform his best Big Boss. It keeps itself consistent until the end of the game, where you revisit the first mission, and the scene is set typically, with you behind the camera looking at Snake. Except this time, the characters notice you, they do not look at Snake, but at you. Finally, the truth is revealed, as they refer to you and Big Boss as two different people.

You, the player

And how does the character of Snake react to this revelation? The game leaves this up to interpretation, as Hideo Kojima himself stated in a 2015 interview:

Snake is and always has been nothing more than an extension of the player. He’s your alter ego. Therefore, I made a very conscious effort this time to bring Snake closer to the player’s perspective. As much as possible, Snake will act based on the player.

His reaction is ostensibly the player’s reaction. Which means that he must be angry; fooled and played like a fiddle, he must be disappointed at the ruse that was his identity. The only problem is, after the reveal, the player still plays the game, and they still perform the act of Big Boss. As long as the player boots up Metal Gear Solid V, they prove Kojima’s point of neverending war, the moot effort of escalating violence for peace, and the psychological fact that the narcissistic false self often prevails against the weaker true one.

Doubletake

Video games are by and by a power fantasy. People from all sorts of backgrounds and dispositions in life play to put themselves in larger-than-life roles, where the world needs them and only them. They escape into characters that are stronger, more masculine, and most importantly, ones that win. But that is also true in narcissism. Except that while video games are temporary endeavors, and usually separate from daily activity, narcissists mistake their power fantasy selves with their true ones. Narcissists never wash their makeup and leave their roles. After tasting the legend of Big Boss, with the amount of reverence that is lauded with it, how could anyone drop that act and go back?

Writer Sam Vaknin had this to say regarding the False Self’s function:

It serves as a decoy, it “attracts the fire”. It is a proxy for the True Self. It is tough as nails and can absorb any amount of pain, hurt and negative emotions.

In Metal Gear Solid V, this is not only true in the macro plot-related scale, where Snake and by extension the player, attract the world’s attention from Big Boss; it also works in the micro psychological relations scale, where Snake is the player’s decoy, an outlet to inhabit a powerful persona that escapes worldly worries and flaws. No matter who the player is in real life, as long as they play the game, they are Big Boss. Along with that title, they are awarded the importance of a protagonist's purpose and the immunity from real-world affairs. Every time they play the game, the controller (or keyboard) acts as a prosthetic limb that tunes their attention and awareness with this false self. Players don’t have to think about who they are, where to get a job, their love lives, or insecurities. They have an allocated role in the fantasy world dedicated to them. And while this is all well and good, maybe even necessary in moderation (perhaps the purpose of video games is to dip in and out of different perspectives), this is what narcissists live and see every day: a flawless life of self-importance.

The narcissist copes with this painful and ineluctable realization of the divorce between his self-perception and this less than stellar state of affairs by first denying reality, delusionally ignoring and filtering out all inconvenient truths. Then, if this coping strategy fails, the narcissist invents a new narrative, which accommodates and incorporates the very intrusive data that served to undermine the previous, now discarded narrative. He even goes to the extent of denying that he ever had another narrative, except the current, modified one.

Even after Big Boss’ betrayal, Snake accepts his role still. Maybe it makes sense from his shoes, as an unbearable truth can be meaningless, whilst at least lies always have a reason. As Big Boss his pain has purpose. He can’t return to life as a mere medic because what would become of all his trauma and loss then? The only survivable action is to alter his internal narrative, subsuming his past. By consciously punishing himself and accepting the blame people throw at him, Snake maintains control over his self, this false self is a shield that diverts the deeper blame from himself. Snake isn’t just a symbol and myth that countries can put their blame on, but also something he himself can put blame on. As long as Snake is hurt, he isn’t, because Snake is bigger than him, bigger than us. And there’s nothing behind the curtain anymore, or at least anything substantial that can compete.

The common view is that the remnants of the True Self are so ossified, shredded, cowed into submission and repressed — that, for all practical purposes, the True Self is dysfunctional and useless. In treating the narcissist, the therapist often tries to construct and nurture a completely new healthy self, rather than build upon the distorted wreckage strewn across the narcissist’s psyche.

Snake accepts his role because the alternative is vulnerability and the destruction of his entire identity (again), it is better to assimilate his knowledge into this composite identity than reconstitute his old one. The false self dominates, and the meek true self cannot confront it. Just as Snake cannot meet the real Big Boss, as a shadow cannot touch itself, only death can close the curtain for his role’s end. There is no cure for narcissism. If the antivenom of truth takes away the false self, it reveals nothing behind but a phantom. Venom is killing him, but without it he’s nothing. With Venom at least he has meaning.

Truth — The Man Who Sold the World

In the game, the player has a Walkman where they can put their personal playlists. Playing your favorite songs whilst parading around the game world eases you into Snake’s shoes. The line between player and character blurs, between the true self and the false one. The proverbial shoe is empty without a self to wear it. Luckily in video games, people have permission to perform a false self, as it ends once the game is closed, and begins again once reopened; it is a theatre with clear curtains, a false self in a regulated reality with its own dedicated time and space. The problem with narcissists is that they do not have a line or boundary where the true self ends and the false one begins, so they live and die as this construct of a grandiose identity.

At the time of writing, video games are the only medium where the third party is not only the recipient of an artist’s work, but part of the canvas. Snake is as much Big Boss’ phantom, Kojima’s legacy, and the player’s proxy. In his last hurrah in the franchise, Kojima hands down Big Boss’ reins (his child and creation) to the only one deserving of the legacy, the player.

You, the player, the Legendary Soldier, Big Boss

We are every one of us, each other’s phantoms; we all leave behind something in other people’s lives, and some of them may be more real than ourselves, in the shape of words or ideas. We house ghosts in the closet, in our most private rooms, of absent friends or departed lovers, they haunt faded photographs or borrowed everyday items. But perhaps, the greatest haunting of all is the face we see in the mirror, one we can only recognize when reflected back at us; when our false selves finally look at the true one, or the other way around.

References

Vaknin, S., & Lidija Rangelovska. (2015). Malignant self love : narcissism revisited. Narcissus Publications.

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PulledApartFlatWhite

Chronic dreamer. Self-proclaimed poet, writer, and artist. Lover of art in all its myriad forms.