15 Kills: Solid Perry, The Phantom Pain, Performance

Kills 1 and 2

Some masterpieces take a little time to get rolling. In this sense, the 2018 YouTube video “MGS5 Creative Stealth Kills” by Solid Perry—one of the most impressive gaming skill showcases I’ve ever seen—mirrors its host text, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain (2015), one of the greatest open-world video games ever made. MGS5 opens with a portentous slog through a series of hospital corridors before setting the player loose in an exquisitely responsive, dynamic, and (rarest of all) internally consistent desert warzone. Similarly, “Creative Stealth Kills,” which unlocks latent aspects of the game’s physics systems to weave stunning arabesques of interconnected death, begins with what might be the most pedestrian kill in Solid Perry’s entire “Creative Stealth Kills” series. The legendary commando Snake, guided by the player who I’ll refer to henceforth as Perry, sprints through the shadows behind an unsuspecting Russian guard and grabs him in the character’s trademark chokehold. At the same time, using the game’s “buddy” system, Perry commands Snake’s dog to kill a second guard patrolling some 50 feet away near a patch of sunlight that’s streaking through an opening in the warehouse ceiling. Adeptly manipulating the game’s 3D camera, Perry frames Snake and the captive guard in profile at the center of the screen, while our eyes follow the dog as it rushes behind Snake’s body and across the background patch of light before leaping onto the second guard’s back and tearing out his throat at the exact moment that Snake executes his own captive. Clearly, the feat on display is one of timing and contrast, a matter of syncing up the two kills—one achieved directly and instantaneously through a button press, the other indirectly, and on a delay, via a command to an NPC—despite an imbalance of direct control. It’s similar to the act of throwing an object high in the air and then catching it as it falls, and indeed, only slightly more impressive: Perry will quickly show themselves capable of far greater feats of timing and coordination. Yet such simplicity also serves the opening’s function. It establishes the barest version of a theme, the synchronization of kills involving disparate timescales and input delays, that the video will iterate upon in increasingly complex ways. Two birds with two stones—but at the same time.

Kills 3 and 4

The fire, obviously, is not the point. Using the warp function on his robotic arm, Snake pulls a guard instantaneously to his position from 15 feet away, runs past his stunned, swaying form, and lights him up with an incendiary grenade. But all of this is mere vamping. What Perry is really doing is killing time, filling the space between this sequence’s genuinely meaningful beats: the remote request for a new sniper rifle via air drop following kills 1 and 2, and the moment, 24 seconds later, when the requested cargo falls out of the sky onto the head of a guard atop a distant building. The warp-arm/fire kill is the inessential content, easily replaced by anything else, whose sole function is to eliminate waiting and thereby to lend an illusion of structural necessity to the 24-second gap between command and result. Is there a better illustration of the aesthetic principle of ornamentation as a mode of delay?

We might say the actual spectacle here is one of systemic totality and scale. The omnipresent reach of networked military systems—a central theme of The Phantom Pain as it was in Guns of the Patriots—is also an operative principle of the gameplay, which allows you, almost instantaneously, to drop anything from a tank to a dog to a barrage of missiles anywhere on the map with pinpoint precision. Yet what elevates this system from a mere gameplay mechanic into a genuine spectacle is its thorough integration, however awkward or at times surreal, into the nuts-and-bolts physics of The Phantom Pain’s terrestrial realm. Whereas in most games the process of fabricating supplies relies on an undisguised form of conjuring ex nihilo (whether through crafting via menu or some kind of warping technology a la Death Stranding’s chiral network), in MGS5 whatever teleportation that occurs during this process does so high up in the atmosphere, leaving time for your requested objects to gain real solidity as they enter your field of view from above. Here “crafted” objects actually fall from the sky, and—just as importantly—hit the ground, dislodging things and people. Crucially, this means that the sky of The Phantom Pain, the sheer vastness that in most open-world games represents nothing more than a static, sterile background (the appropriately named skybox) or, at best, another shooting gallery and/or canvas for the occasional scripted sequence, is here genuinely assimilated into the game’s simulation of physical reality. In MGS5 the dystopian vastness of the world’s military systems thus activates a utopian vastness of sheer ludic potential, a kind of interactive febrility not only of sky and earth but of the forms of interface between them.

This is why I’ve always been obsessed with flying in those 3D gameworlds that one primarily inhabits on foot. More specifically, I’ve always been obsessed with forcing unscripted interactions between the spatially totalizing perspective of flight and the isolated physical existence of singular entities on the ground. Flying a Banshee and bombarding enemies from high above in the Halo games is fun, but what’s really fun is crashing your ship into an enemy and watching them fly across the map, precisely because this crude physical interaction confirms a fact that is by no means a given in video game worlds: that here vastness and detail, the immensity of traversable space and the discrete physics of the singular entity, are existentially continuous. Such moments intoxicate with a feeling of spatial unity at a scale beyond the human. Yet this feeling also depends upon the game’s ability to model a human scale first and foremost (a series like Ace Combat could never evoke it). Indeed, its strength is coextensive with the degree to which human-scale physical existence attains a legitimate thickness and density. The spatial whole must be visible without becoming abstract.

Flying in games exemplifies this sensation, but it isn’t required for it. Assassinating a target in MGS5 or the recent Hitman games with a sniper rifle, for instance, produces a version of the same pleasure: a paradoxical feeling of immensity as your vision narrows to a single point, a wonder at the fact that a simulated world of such granular detail can still be accessed, and acutely impacted, from the distant mountain or rooftop on which you stand. (Assassination games are also fantasies of spatial totality.) Similarly, what Perry’s air drop trick finally dramatizes is precisely this collision, both literal and figural, between a vastly extended system encompassing sky and earth and the game’s more granular systems governing the interaction of discrete physical bodies. This is why it’s important that the guard doesn’t just get knocked out by the aerial supply drop, but also—and this is actually what makes Perry’s feat impressive—falls off the building with a comically stilted non-animation. Although this fall looks silly, it bears an existential significance, for it highlights the fact that the air drop not only has an immediate effect on the game’s human-scale environment but indeed can initiate a causal chain within it—a secondary effect of simulated gravity, however janky. Between the fall of the box and the fall of the hapless guard, the world system and contingent physical existence express their fundamental unity.

Kill 5

Apropos of granular detail: I’ve always been amazed at Metal Gear’s holdup function, a feature of the series since Sons of Liberty. Sneak up on an enemy and point your gun at them, and they’ll freeze. Point your gun at their crotch, and in Sons of Liberty and Snake Eater they’ll beg for mercy while shaking loose an item to placate you. Aim your weapon elsewhere, or simply (as seems to happen here) remain in the same position for too long, and they’ll cannily attempt to turn the tables. Metal Gear guards are the rare video game NPCs possessing both an instinct for self-preservation and an acute consciousness of their own bodily vulnerability. It may seem easy to dismiss the crotch gag in particular as just another bit of classic Kojima puerility, but this feat of AI programming has a pathos that exceeds its ostensibly comic function. It’s not just that guards are able to feel pain, or even, far rarer, to anticipate pain, thus making them perhaps the only video game NPCs possessing some kind of future-oriented consciousness (however short-lived and ultimately feigned); it’s also that they do so specifically in response to the direction of the player’s weapon. As a result, the field of the simulated body becomes differentiated to a degree far beyond the norm for action games, wherein headshots deal more damage and limbs may sometimes be disabled with bullets. Here the body is differentiated psychologically, prior to any act of violence, and also, we may say, phenomenologically, insofar as the pure direction of the player’s virtual gaze becomes a meaningful variable of bodily interaction. A holdup in Metal Gear is a simulation of conscious embodiment.

All of this, mind you, was present in a game released over 20 years ago. I’ve heard it said that Sons of Liberty, with its dynamically melting ice cubes, destructible environmental details (shooting a pipe releases steam that can distract or harm an enemy, for example), and unprecedentedly complex AI reactions was far ahead of its time, establishing a benchmark for interactive detail and density that only later, more technologically advanced games would begin to meet.[1] As far as enemy behavior goes, however, this is far too generous to modern games. To my knowledge, there hasn’t been a single action game released in the last 20 years whose enemies possess a range of dynamic responses rivaling that of the guards in Sons of Liberty, let alone their more advanced iterations in The Phantom Pain. That Metal Gear guards are so often the butt of jokes about enemy AI only makes the true nature of this disparity more baffling. Guards in the Dishonored series, for instance, may have better vision and hearing, while also being more naturally (one might say realistically) suspicious, but their actual interactive possibilities are minimal. They possess a much more limited range of responses to stimuli, cannot be interfaced with outside of combat (there’s nothing approaching Metal Gear’s holdup system and the complex bodily differentiation it entails), and when alerted rush blindly toward your position in a disorganized horde a la the lemming-like enemies in Skyrim—a sharp contrast to the clever group tactics and complex, dynamic communication trees of MGS guards (who, among other things, actually radio each other with walkie-talkies that you can shoot and disable mid-call). Meanwhile, open-world games like Red Dead Redemption 2, a game often cited as the current standard for interactive detail in a simulated reality, continue to populate their generic enemy camps with braindead NPCs who act essentially as stationary targets. And the less said about the Hitman series’ rigid, overly scripted mannequins the better: for all their satisfactions, pulling off a stealthy assassination in these titles feels like moving pieces around in a board game, like navigating the abstract idea of a heavily guarded location rather than an immediate, moment-by-moment simulation of the thing itself. Compared to these examples, the guards in Metal Gear—despite their comically bad peripheral vision—seem to possess actual sensoria. They alone of all video game enemies seem genuinely to exist in the world.

They are, however, still eminently exploitable, and one wonders if the general lack of appreciation for Metal Gear’s guards finally stems from the same thing that makes them an endless source of amusement: their radical, and often openly absurd, behavioral consistency. This feature manifests in a variety of ways, many of them silly, some less so. On the one hand, a guard will always respond to a tossed ammo clip in the exact same way, and will always make the often fatal decision to investigate the noise; every guard will throw up their hands when surprised with a gun pointed at their backs; and all guards more or less follow the same inflexible protocols when radioing for backup. All of this seems reasonable enough. Yet when the rigorous predictability of guard behavior converges with one of Metal Gear’s many undisguised violations of realism, goofiness ensues. Set up a life-sized inflatable decoy of Snake in MGS5, and a guard will not only repeat the same sequence of responses every single time—attempted capture, confusion, angry destruction of the balloon—but will do so for every decoy you inflate, no matter how many times the guard has been duped by the same trick, and no matter how many identical Snake balloons you place within his field of vision at once. This combination of granular, dynamic responsiveness (the guard after all does react, complexly and in real time, to the presence of each decoy) and lizard-brain, amnesiac behavior is emblematic of Metal Gear guards in general, who can respond to a staggering number of stimuli and yet always do so with a kind of radically simplified, laser-focused automatism. Indeed, with their exaggerated expressive gestures and the series’ signature icons ([!], [?], [ZZZ]) floating above their heads, they often resemble nothing so much as Sims: toylike simulated humans whose illusion of life comes not from the depth of their existence but from their sheer gestural vocabulary in responding to the world, and whose complex embeddedness in that world is tightly bound up with a contemptible obliviousness.

Yet the point is that they remain simulated humans nonetheless. The longstanding Metal Gear metagame of Fucking With Guards—which MGS5 brilliantly moves to the center of gameplay, and which Perry’s videos raise to an art form—has been the best part of the series since Sons of Liberty precisely because their unmatched density of dynamic responses to the virtual environment and player actions makes them seem so unusually alive. Metal Gear guards are fun to engage in combat because they alone seem to possess an existence that genuinely exceeds it (and all this without canned scripts for eating, sleeping, and conversing). To torment them in the style of Solid Perry is thus to take pleasure in a kind of spectacular waste—the reduction of an enormously complex system, a thinking and feeling mind, to a mere prop for violent hijinks. That’s a whole person you just sent flying off a bridge with a load of C4—a rag doll with an inner life. You can imagine a guard regretting his mistake (fooled by the wall knock trick again!) as he plummets from the struts of the Big Shell into the freezing Atlantic. You can imagine his initial excitement at seeing that decoy Snake just waiting to be captured. You can imagine him recognizing the tragic absurdity of the situation as Perry, at the 80-second mark of “Creative Stealth Kills,” surprises him with a holdup, rigs him to a portable weather balloon, and then warps his partner from 20 feet away to a position directly beneath his own hovering form.

Kills 6 and 7

Perry has started to repeat themselves. Once again, they order an aerial supply drop (a jeep this time) at a guard’s exact coordinates, and once again they fill the waiting time with a multi-step kill (involving a smoke-rigged cardboard box—complexity for complexity’s sake) that ends with a second guard’s death via incendiary grenade. Is Perry running out of ideas or asserting a pattern? Is this artistic failure or formal sophistication?

We could ask the same question of this sequence’s highlight kill, which, like many of Perry’s feats, evokes amazement and ridicule simultaneously. When the jeep drops from the sky onto the head of its victim, the game’s physics system bugs out. First, just like the last time Perry pulled this move, the guard is not crushed beneath the weight of the falling body but rather displaced at a velocity that seems to correlate with the force exerted from above. The last guard, brained by a sniper rifle, merely moved a few feet; this time he shoots off to the side like a bowling ball caught beneath the tire of a passing car, like some indestructible substance being ejected from a pocket of space by an equally unbreakable and immutable object. And once again, the physics system ruling the behavior of human bodies seems to glitch out in turn, albeit to different effect. Whereas the previous supply-drop victim fell goofily from his perch in a rigid, perfectly horizontal position—exactly like those MGS2 guards one used to drop through the gaps in the Big Shell’s connecting struts, watching them plummet stiffly for hundreds of feet as if they were splayed on the floor of an invisible elevator to the abyss—this time a reaction animation does kick in, but brokenly so. While the guard soars across the screen, arms flailing in a somewhat plausible manner given the circumstances, we watch in damning slow motion as the bottom of the guard’s character model clips unresistingly through the solid ground, his legs invisible beneath a sheer surface of asphalt, then his upper torso sinking too as he begins to turn parallel to the road mid-flight—so that for a moment it looks almost as if he were swimming in dry earth—whereupon he finally collides with what seems to be the only solid surface around: a concrete tower foundation that sends his corpse (for Perry, a crack shot, has sniped him in midair) bouncing implausibly upward in a perfectly vertical trajectory before coming to rest on the ground.

All art contains jarring moments poised enigmatically between failure and success. Yet video games have a particularly strange relation between formal lapses and virtuosity. Although bugs and glitches in games (as I have suggested elsewhere) tend to be treated unambiguously as flaws from a purely artistic point of view, they are often highly valorized phenomena from the standpoint of pure play. If technical lapses have traditionally been interpretive magnets in other art forms—privileged sites wherein criticism demonstrates its inexhaustible power to transform any ostensible fault into a virtue through subtle, creative readings—in video games such lapses become magnets for a strictly ludic virtuosity, hidden “weak spots” whose creative exploitation in gameplay demonstrates a knowledge of the ludic system that exceeds whatever the game represents, or even imagines, about itself. Such lapses thus remain objects of a particular kind of expertise. Playing a game for its glitches is a mode of granular formal analysis that “reads against the grain.” In this sense, it resembles certain varieties of the analytic technique known as close reading.[2] Literary critics were once fond of stating that close reading’s obsessive attention to microscopic effects of language merely replicates the kind of detailed attention that the artist needed to write the work in the first place. As a form of analysis, exploiting faults in a game could bear the same justification: one plays the game like a designer. Yet if all this makes the exploitation of glitches (and other fleeting systemic breakdowns) a cousin of close reading, this activity’s relation to judgments of value—to praise or condemnation of the work itself—remains much more ambiguous. For here the user’s joyful dilation on the formal fault is rarely redeemed in the service of some larger artistic meaning, coherence, or intention. Rather, the exploitation itself is the meaning: utilizing hidden glitches is a form of close reading that purely serves the interests of the player rather than the work. It is critical virtuosity undiluted by any subservience to the masterpiece.

That, anyway, is the general model. But Perry’s play with this minor systemic failure in MGS5 (a momentary breakdown of collision detection) differs in that it does act as a form of praise. It’s a display of sheer skill too, of course: the ridiculous behavior of the guard’s body when the jeep lands on his head is precisely what occasions Perry’s showy feat of marksmanship. But like other videos in the “creative kills” genre, here the very demonstration of player creativity also stands as an earnest celebration of the work’s systemic dynamism and open-endedness—the fact, in short, that it allows for such creativity in the first place. Within this celebratory context, glitches and other weird effects do not simply open up new angles for virtuosic performance but also function as stress tests revealing the work’s deeper ontological consistency. What is marvelous is that even when the game bugs out, everything still works. If this was true in the earlier case of the guard falling off the building, it becomes even more so here, where Perry smashes together not only the systems dictating bodily physics and aerial supply drops, but also those of bullet-time perception and nuts-and-bolts gunplay all at once: perhaps nothing is more impressive than the fact that the game still recognizes the headshot while the guard is hurtling anomalously through space and clipping through the ground. That he survives the falling jeep is a silly bit of jank, but that he is still able to die in midair, maintaining his interactive vitality at the very moment that he seems most immaterial, testifies to the true solidity of the created world. In a laudatory act of sabotage, Perry presents brokenness as a spectacle of holistic integrity.

Kills 8 and 9

So that’s why Perry needed that sniper rifle. Between moves in the video’s most astonishing feat of dual murder, Perry embeds a second dual murder—two distant headshots with one sniper bullet—whose brutal concision as an act belies its structural function of making the mind-boggling complexity of “Creative Kills” newly palpable. For it’s only here, as Perry retrieves the weapon they dropped on the fourth guard’s head exactly three minutes ago, that we begin to appreciate the video not just as a series of individually impressive feats but as an interconnected work: Perry, as one is perhaps reminded for the first time, has accomplished all of this in a single six-minute take. In a beautiful contrast, the video’s moment of maximum simplicity thus encodes and illuminates the intricate design of the whole. At the center of this sequence, one bullet passes through two heads swaying intermittently together and apart: the dual kill in its purest form. At the next level (that of the episode), this sharpshooting feat is merely the connective tissue holding together a far more elaborate double murder involving a holdup, C4, and another fall from a roof (a dual kill inside a dual kill). And at the last level, that of the work, this moment’s unprecedented causal extension—the fact that it alone of all the kills we’ve seen so far was set up during a previous sequence—produces an effect of overall unity that remains as intensely localized as the sniper shot itself: the threading of a single bullet between two guards forms the knot that ties the work together.

Kills 10 and 11

Of course, during the 50 seconds it takes to perform the last feat—to run up to the roof of a power station, retrieve the sniper rifle from its box, dive off the roof and sprint down the stairs back to ground level, snipe the two guards, and return to the elevated area where this whole sequence started—a guard has been standing there with his hands up and a piece of C4 strapped to his back like an idiot. Goofiness again: although this guard tried to slip out of Perry’s holdup up earlier, he seems to have learned his lesson a little too well, remaining frozen in a surrender pose despite the fact that Perry has been nowhere near him for almost a full minute. Here Perry exploits the eminent predictability of Metal Gear guards even in their expressions of dynamism. Indeed, in strapping a C4 to his back and blasting him off the terrace onto his patrolling comrade below, Perry literally instrumentalizes the guard by turning him into a weapon. The guard assumes the video’s starring role of Heavy Object Falling from the Sky.

In this Perry shows a taste for the finer things. To my mind, there is nothing more fun in the Metal Gear games than placing explosives on the backs of oblivious guards—one of the series’ videogamey absurdities (the guards never notice) that speaks to its fundamental kinship with games like Mario and the bygone gadget-based platformer Ape Escape despite its cinematic pretentions and occasional sheen of military realism. At its core, Metal Gear is a series about using an unmatched variety of tools and actions to engage with the gameworld in rigorously repeatable ways, no matter the risk to your suspension of disbelief. It is at once infinitely complex and somehow clean. The ambiguity of actual life is utterly foreign to its gameplay: though each entry in the series represents a generational high mark in photorealistic visuals, in all of them every action, every response, remains as crisp and sharply defined as jumping on a Goomba’s head. From the way a guard reacts to a falling beehive in Snake Eater, to the complex, coordinated response of an entire outpost in The Phantom Pain when you blow up a radar in their midst (some guards scrambling for cover, others contacting HQ, still others launching flares into the sky while scanning for your position), the games’ myriad systems behave with an inviolable, airtight logic typically found only in puzzle games and platformers. In this prioritization of ludic precision above all else, the series approaches abstraction while outwardly fetishizing mimesis. It is Tetris expanded into a military sim.

Rigging a guard with C4 exemplifies this productive tension. On the one hand, it’s doubtless important that you’re using C4 in particular. The Metal Gear games have always been enamored with military technology, rendering their weapons in exquisite 3D detail (even in the PS2 games) and usually including one or more characters who will drone on at length about the history and specs of whatever piece of hardware you have equipped. Naked Snake’s fanboyish enthusiasm for each sidearm EVA brings him in Snake Eater is emblematic, both in the attitude toward real-world military hardware it expresses and in the rendering achievements of the cutscenes themselves, which convincingly model not only the weapons but their individual components in full 3D as Snake lovingly takes apart and reassembles each gun. At the same time, there is that carefully rendered package of C4 sticking improbably to some guard’s backpack, its blinking light failing to raise any eyebrows among his associates, its weight seemingly undetectable to the guard himself. And when you detonate the bomb, his body suffers no realistic rending or fragmentation a la The Last of Us Part II, but instead rockets cartoonishly forward in a fully intact state. It would be easy, perhaps, to argue that it is this latter side of Metal Gear’s design ethos—its embrace of absurdity, its discreet avoidance of realism when needed, its prioritization of consistent and immediate responses to player input over filmic immersion; in short, its unabashed gaminess—that explains the fun of scenarios like this one. In truth, however, the pleasure arises from a friction between the poles of realism and abstraction. Metal Gear may resemble Mario in certain ways, but fitting a Goomba with a remote-detonated explosive and sending it to march alongside its comrades would have none of the same thrill. Likewise for a game like Breath of the Wild, which does possess a C4-like weapon but whose monotonous, stilted, and weightless cartoon enemies seem frankly unworthy of tormenting, despite some technically impressive AI. In Metal Gear, the absurdity of such actions is exciting precisely because the virtual world, more so than in any other game of its kind, feels fundamentally real and tactile.[3] To smuggle C4 into a military outpost by sticking it on a guard’s back in plain sight is to smuggle slapstick antics into a realistic world that is nevertheless obliged, and uniquely equipped, to treat them seriously. The comic scenario thus maintains a certain extremity: just as pleasurable as the guard’s unrealistic obliviousness is one’s delirious anticipation of smoke, debris, and flying bodies, one’s conviction that at the touch of a button, this goofily invisible bomb will still affect the simulation like a bomb. What we want is to maim the illusion, not to kill it.

Kills 12–15

But through all of this, the auteur himself remains absent. “Creative Stealth Kills” reveals the truth of the series by being Metal Gear without Kojima. No plot, no dialogue, no cutscenes: all of the cinematic and conceptual ambitions of the Hideo Kojima Game have been stripped away, leaving nothing but the generous, experimental gameplay that has been the series’ foremost accomplishment since the beginning. This is not, of course, to deny Kojima’s involvement in gameplay design (which is doubtless significant), nor is it to overlook the occasionally remarkable achievements of his work as a writer and pseudo-filmmaker. For all its cringe-inducing dialogue, Sons of Liberty really did predict how the internet would influence human thought and discourse with uncanny accuracy, and in the late sequence on Arsenal Gear it attains a degree of authentic surrealism that few games have ever matched. But all too often, the series’ compelling ideas and radical narrative conceits are undone by Kojima’s cinematic excesses and patently amateurish writing. Indeed, in playing them one often gets the sense that somehow the vast, complex machinery of postmodern narrative has been hijacked, Metal Gear-style, by a 14-year-old enamored with diarrhea jokes and Michael Bay movies.

Though the series has always been critically acclaimed, the obtrusiveness of Kojima’s directorial presence on the levels of narrative and presentation has largely prevented an accurate assessment of its revolutionary gameplay. In this respect, it has suffered a fate similar to that of Naughty Dog’s recent games, which have often been criticized for having bad gameplay simply because in them storytelling takes up such a great percentage of the play time and seems to constitute the creators’ primary site of artistic investment and interest. In fact, Naughty Dog games—Uncharted 4 and The Last of Us Part II in particular—generally play quite well, especially in their combat, which despite being a tad simplistic (these works remain far inferior gameplay-wise to anything in the Metal Gear series post-Sons of Liberty) is nonetheless responsive, dynamic, and at turns gleefully frenetic (in Uncharted) and genuinely tense (in The Last of Us). Certainly, these titles are significantly more engaging and finely crafted as games than celebrated works like The Witcher 3 and Red Dead Redemption 2, whose combat mechanics are frankly embarrassing. (I’d even go so far as to say that fighting against human enemies in The Last of Us Part II, evaluated purely on gameplay design, surpasses anything you do in Breath of the Wild, a game often falsely held up as the antithesis to so-called “modern AAA design tropes,” but which ultimately betrays its magnificent achievements in visual design and environmental traversal with stilted, broken combat against the same two enemy models, comically easy puzzles, and the same procession of identical bandit camps, map-revealing towers, and meaningless loot that middlebrow “gameplay-forward” snobs claim to hate.) Much in the same way, the Metal Gear games have often been dismissed as interactive movies, a charge that holds true in a purely quantitative sense—their cutscenes are indeed exhaustingly long—but which ignores the supreme artistry of whatever parts the player does control. Their occasionally bizarre controller layouts are a small price to pay for the density of interactive detail they afford, the nearly endless number of angles they offer for reliably and consistently affecting the environment and the people within it. Between hour-long cutscenes they offer some of gaming’s most realized spaces of pure play.

Of course, The Phantom Pain already foregrounds this to a degree. If “Creative Stealth Kills” is Metal Gear without Kojima, The Phantom Pain is Kojima without his signature. The fact that his name appears on the screen before every one of the game’s numerous missions—a symbolic gesture that some critics have made much of—is both an outlier and a ruse. With the exception of the notoriously offensive design of the sniper Quiet, which exemplifies the leering attitude toward his female characters that has marred his work from the beginning, barely any of Kojima’s directorial hallmarks can be found in MGS5. Cutscenes are extremely infrequent, the story is not only fragmentary and minimalist but actually unfinished, and the game treats its characteristically ambitious themes—privatized war, the experience of nationlessness, the link between the spread of language and the spread of ideology—with uncharacteristic reticence. The pre-mission credits are in truth merely a stylistic compensation for the game’s wholesale renunciation of Kojima’s cinematic vision; and just as important as the repetitive appearance of his name is the fact that other designers’ and artists’ names appear too.

Nevertheless, in the final sequence of “Creative Stealth Kills” Perry pays homage to Kojima’s cinematic ideal. The C4 blast from the previous sequence having set the whole base on alert, Perry, from a rooftop perch, watches two guards advance in parallel lines toward the far end of the outpost. As he passes near Perry’s position, one of the guards spots a decoy—placed by Perry two minutes prior—and approaches it, but his path takes him by a parked forklift that Perry then shoots, causing it to explode and killing him instantly. The response of the second alerted guard now plays directly into Perry’s hands. Ducking for cover, this guard changes direction and sprints across the road to crouch among the circuit breakers of a substation opposite Perry’s building, where two other guards are already stationed. All three are now sitting ducks. Opening a menu, Perry orders an airstrike that carpets the entire substation area in missiles. And as the fiery death rains down, Snake—as per the immutable law of action-movie heroic conduct—turns his back to the carnage and walks slowly towards the camera while the explosions swell behind him. He clicks his robotic arm in acknowledgment of the viewer and the video ends.

This conclusion is a gesture of pure style. Instead of ludic creativity or uncommon skill (the remote airstrike is one of the game’s basic functions) Perry’s finale offers for our appreciation only the coy recreation of an action movie trope. Yet the moment lands not because the scene genuinely looks like a movie—the explosions themselves are too chintzy (for all its marvels, The Phantom Pain’s FOX engine isn’t good at rendering fire), the midday light makes everything appear washed out, and Snake, sensibly programed only to sneak rather than to strut, walks stiffly toward the camera in a tensed, slightly hunched position, showing none of the cool indifference to death and danger that the trope normally advertises—but rather because we know that Perry has reproduced this filmic cliché whole cloth, using nothing but the systems, actions, and objects that The Phantom Pain affords for its normal open-world gameplay. What we admire is thus the act of creation itself rather than the product: here the cinematic trope objectifies itself and becomes perceptible anew as something made. The cliché loses its givenness. This, it should be said, is no longer true of Kojima’s own direction, but it wasn’t always this way: 1998’s Metal Gear Solid was celebrated upon release precisely because it demonstrated the fledgling medium’s ability to imitate certain aspects of film style—mainly borrowed from Hollywood action movies—to a degree that hadn’t seemed possible before. Given the hardware restrictions of the early 3D generation, Metal Gear Solid was a stunning work because it reproduced B-movie cliches using a different and at the time seemingly more limiting material. In replicating a tired cinematic trope Perry therefore echoes not only Kojima’s own style but also something of the latter’s original aesthetic accomplishment. He honors the series’ cinematic ideal by estranging it. Perry thus ends “Creative Stealth Kills” by letting Kojima back into the picture: not as the obtrusive, self-referential auteur of Sons of Liberty and Death Stranding, but rather at a thematically appropriate remove, in the form of a doubled replication—a copy of a copy. Venom Snake to Kojima’s Big Boss, Perry pays tribute to the master by transforming his cinematic pastiche into a meme.

[1] Nick Wiger makes a version of this point in the November 15, 2020 episode of the gaming podcast Get Played (14:38-15:18).

[2] On glitching as a form of “aspirational criticism,” see Andrew Ferguson’s superb essay “Let’s Play Finnegans Wake.”

[3] As Eurogamer’s Chris Tapsell notes in a fantastic piece on The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, this feeling of reality often depends precisely on a game’s prioritization of consistency and reliability in its physics interactions over visual realism. The following remarks—about the physics of enemies falling off ledges, no less—are equally true of The Phantom Pain: “What I’m getting at, beyond the scope of just how things fall off of other things, is that there is something infinitely more real about things reacting in a way you can predict and expect, even if that’s different to how they do in the ‘real’ world, than there is in things trying to directly imitate the real world but ever so slightly missing it. And the result of The Elder Scrolls’ particularly unique, clunky physics is that Skyrim’s connection between you and its world, unlike its peers and its imitators, is near indestructible.”