MGSV, “Blood Runs Deep”, and ludo/metanarrative

Warning, spoilers ahead. Obviously.

Out of all the missions in MGSV, “Blood Runs Deep” is easily one of those complained about the most due to its extreme annoyance factor. Now, this is in a game that has also been criticized over certain missions being too easy, being able to be completed with an S-rank in less than ten minutes (eight of those being traveling), like for example “Lingua Franca”. So, after playing through it myself, I felt it deserved a deeper analysis given the game’s and series’ focus on metanarrative.

“Blood Runs Deep” is an escort mission. That involves children…who happen to be child soldiers. Child soldiers who, apparently, lack the capacity to hide very well nor defend themselves. Who tend to not listen to Snake’s orders to “go” or “wait”, which is an unexpected gameplay mechanic. Who have to be escorted through the easily the most restrictive and linear environment in the game. One of the child soldiers is crippled with a leg injury, which forces Snake to carry him, which means only pistols and SMG’s are usable…unless the player chooses to drop the child, move forward, and then backtrack to retrieve him. The mission has a soft time limit, as the PF soldiers invariably realize the children are missing and step up to combat alert, reinforce, and begin searching the aforementioned restrictive and linear environment. There’s also a gunship constantly flying overhead on a tight search pattern. Neither guards nor gunship can be evaded (in a stealth game). And of course, none of the children can die or be left behind.

This is all after the lengthiest and tensest infiltration scenario in the game to that point, setting aside “Hellbound” due to the latter’s length being found in the benign and risk-free travel time between the power plant and base camp.

In any other circumstance, that’s a laundry list of how to not design a game scenario, in or out of an open-world game. Every last aspect of that mission’s finale is, superficially, poor game design about which practically the entire gamer community complains and has complained for years, which even the most amateurish studios avoid like the plague sparing mitigating mechanics. Kojima Productions was better than this, so clearly this mission had to have some intent behind it to ratchet the player’s tension and frustration levels to the maximum.

And, I believe the answer lies in the gaming community’s own natural solution to the problems that plague the mission: kill ’em all. Shoot down the gunship, and it can’t spot you or gun Snake or the children down. Kill the guards, and they can’t be woken up by the reinforcements (of course, neither can they be fultoned, but due to the mission’s design the player is left precious little time to fulton). There’s little point to stealth or evasion, because the PF forces end up in combat alert anyways; and, the more careful style stealth and evasion warrants (especially in the cramped quarters of the ravine) runs the player against the soft time limit.

This, in a game series where lethal and overt play is de-emphasized, and almost continually penalized (either through immediate consequences during the course of gameplay, or in the longer-term by affecting mission score), where genuine action scenes are rare moments of catharsis generally doled out upon major plot advancements. The ravine escort during this mission is neither cathartic nor following a major plot advancement; quite the opposite, the ravine escort escalates tension, and follows a scene which raises questions and plot points but resolves none.

Cutscenes from this mission were portrayed in trailers as a defining point in Snake’s descent into the madness and villainy of Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake:

The reality of this cutscene is vastly different than its portrayal in the trailers. What happens after is what matters; that ravine escort where the player is placed into a scenario intentionally designed to annoy and frustrate them, all but told to “kill ’em all”, and with practically zero negative consequences for doing so.

Let alone the emotional impact of this scene as a reflection of reality:

TL;DR: It’s some seriously fucked-up shit. Especially in the context of, in the game, predominantly white PF’s enslaving and trafficking African children for labor and soldiering. Then Kojima indirectly throws apartheid into the equation with one of the PF’s being South African in origin.

Now, back to the original point. Many players seem to have expected some defining moment in one or more cutscenes to be the point Snake turns bad. That’s not what gamers received; gamers instead received a cutscene- and dialogue-light open-world game, in which Snake’s actions as not determined by the player (that is to say, in cutscenes) are, at worst, morally ambiguous. An open-world game in which the horrors of war are laid bare, for the player to perceive and do as they will on the basis of those perceptions…with only a “karma meter” that is both inscrutable and opaque, but changes gameplay not in the least, to reflect how those player’s choices reflect upon Snake (and in fact, is very likely only an hallucination on Snake’s part, indicating this is how Snake as an entity distinct from the player perceives himself).

There is no single point Snake turns to evil. No single, defining moment (except perhaps the construction of a nuclear bomb in the optional, online, multiplayer FOB mode, which simply maximizes Snake’s “demon points”). Instead, Snake’s descent is a slippery slope of minor actions that build up over time; actions, which due to weapon and equipment upgrades over the course of the game combined with the capability to cripple enemy forces, become easier to commit and easier to justify in the player’s own mind as they progress (for in-universe reasons as well as metagame reasons; perhaps players may simply resort to more lethal and brutal tactics out of boredom, or lack of need of soldiers to fulton for Mother Base or the FOB).

Simply put, Snake’s descent is entirely of the player’s own making. I’ve mentioned before how MGSV is a game that puts a mirror to the player’s face, and that assertion is the same here. Sandbox games are notorious for “video game cruelty potential“, and by linking Snake’s moral descent to ludonarrative rather than cutscene, Kojima makes a bold but undeniable claim players themselves (at least, in the absence of negative consequences) are inherently villainous.