The Phantom Pain is a depressive episode disguised as a videogame.
Like many people who live on the internet, I go through depressive states. Lately one of the ways I’ve been dealing with it is by playing Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain and seeing bits of my depression reflected in its main character.
In the game you play as Venom Snake, a man who fills his deep emptiness by building his own private army to carry on an endless war against the villainous secret organization that wronged him. The plot is rambling and melodramatic (it deals with revenge and the cold war and how damaged men trap themselves in a cycle of violence, which is fine), and I think it’s kind of fitting for a depression narrative –– who can make sense of anything in a depressive state? The only certainty is that you feel like shit and you need to get out. Sometimes that means surrounding yourself with people/a private army, other times that means an almost maniacal dedication to the mission at hand* (*whatever bullshit tasks you can come up with to occupy you instead of facing your problems head on).
The game takes place after Snake wakes up from a coma. Previously he had built up his own private army only to see it wiped out by his enemies thanks to a betrayal in his ranks. Snake is back to rebuilding, and while he doesn’t know who he can trust, he can’t let that stop him from doing his job. I typically do not identify with Venom Snake, a highly capable special forces spy and assassin, but throughout the game I’ve noticed a tangible sense of sadness he carries around with him that I’ve found myself latching onto when I’m feeling down.
In theory you’re able to complete missions however you’d like but those who’ve played this sort of game before know that the preferred way is by being sneaky and efficient, something that I am compelled to do in real life when I’m depressed. Much like a tactical espionage expert, I also don’t enter a room trying to announce my presence. If I really have to go somewhere or do anything in this state I’d prefer to get in, get out, and interact with as few people as possible, which translates well in terms of gameplay. The less people see you, the more likely it is you can go about your business unbothered. For Venom Snake this is a matter of tactics, but I’d also like to think his hesitance to interact with people is as much a matter of him not wanting to answer the usual “How’s it going? What’ve you been up to?” as it is not wanting to get shot. This is how I’m choosing to deal with my own depressive states, by seeing them reflected in the gameplay of a big budget video game. That the game is somewhat incomplete due to a dispute between its head creator/developer Hideo Kojima and Konami, the company that sells and distributes the game, feels like another metaphor to shoe in to my own personal depression narrative; being able to see yourself in media is endlessly rewarding/humiliating.
(Oh, as a bonus, Snake also carries around a walkman that he uses to play mission briefings and his favorite 1980’s hits while on the go. Who among us hasn’t indulged in our favorite tunes as a way to stave off those dark clouds of depression?)
Snake is your typical masculine video game cipher–– gruff, terse, a real “man with no name” type–– but his laconic tendencies read less to me as a man on a mission with no time for your bullshit and more as a man who cannot help but dwell on the sorrow in his heart.
Perhaps it’s his permanent scowl constantly at odds with his searching eye (he has one working eye, the other having been gouged out due to some previous violence, no doubt), an eye that allows you to gaze into the heart of a man who has been scarred by loss (physical and emotional) and the permanent sting of betrayal.
Maybe I see a sadness in Snake because the people closest to him are too caught up in the trappings of war and revenge for profit to notice that their friend and leader is emotionally withdrawn and is carrying on with the mission because war is all he knows. Maybe I’m reading sadness into this video game character because the only person who truly cares about him (a mysterious mute sniper) is unable to adequately express it to him.
Perhaps it’s because there’s a loneliness to how he’s animated, lumbering around the concrete and steel structures of his man-made island headquarters, a place populated by soldiers who admire him, but could never truly know him, soldiers eagerly displaying their willingness to die for him but who will rarely if ever ask him how he’s doing or if he wants to talk about what’s bothering him (Not that he would, but it’s important to offer). Being embroiled in an endless war of your own design doesn’t really provide an ideal environment for talking about your mental health.
Or perhaps I’m reading into it because I’m depressed and entertaining a deep urge to be someone else, someone who is also depressed but is more equipped to handle bigger problems than mine (Though I’m not yet sure why I wouldn’t want to just fantasize about being someone who is 100% not depressed, but being in a depressive state can really throw you for a loop sometimes). Snake’s problems aren’t necessarily things I see in my own life, but I see this stuff and I feel bad for the guy. He’s obviously dealing with some heavy shit and the only way he and his friends know how to process trauma is through violence and subterfuge. I know that these are exciting elements for a video game and I wouldn’t change any of that, but I feel for him, this man trapped in this world where the only way to deal with your problems is by pressing forward into the same patterns that got you into this mess in the first place.
Whatever the case may be, Snake is depressed and somehow managing to carry on anyway, this is cannon. I need it to be cannon.