Since their humble beginnings, video games have come a long way in establishing themselves as an art form capable of telling compelling stories. The eighth generation of gaming brought with it new juggernauts that pushed the medium forward and demonstrated how video games can evoke powerful emotions and say important things about human life. Examples include titles such as God of War (2018) which illustrates a touching relationship between a father and son, and David Cage’s Detroit: Become Human which explores moral questions of artificial intelligence and the role technology has in our lives.
Two particular standouts are Konami’s Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain and Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us Part II which feature narratives that explore the effects of violence and revenge. Both games are part of franchises that have been beloved by gamers and have been influential in the world of video games. The lead up to their release was filled with much anticipation and high expectations. Upon release, gamers and critics alike received meticulously designed visual masterpieces with intricate gameplay mechanics that never fail to be engaging. However, their narratives were polarizing.
At their core, both Metal Gear Solid V and The Last of Us Part II deal with trauma, retribution, and the implications of pursuing revenge. But what do these games say about revenge, how do they approach it differently, and why does their treatment of this theme inspire controversy? These are the questions I seek to explore.
The following will contain major spoilers for the stories of Metal Gear Sold V, The Last of Us, and The Last of Us Part II.
1. The Trauma
The Metal Gear Solid series is a stealth franchise created by video game icon Hideo Kojima. Released in 2015, Metal Gear Solid V takes place over a decade before the original Metal Gear game. The protagonist is Venom Snake, who is also known as Big Boss by his men. He is a mercenary leader and the head of Militaires Sans Frontières. As revealed in the prequel Ground Zeroes, this mercenary group is defeated and destroyed by Skull Face, and Venom Snake falls into a coma after his helicopter is bombed. It takes nine years before he reawakens, but he is a changed person. He is sensitive to light and his left arm has been replaced with a prosthetic one.
Venom Snake takes lead of Diamond Dogs, a new mercenary group, and heads to Afghanistan and Central Africa to seek revenge on those who dared to wrong him. His motivation is the constant trauma he feels from the losses he has experienced in warfare. This is the “phantom pain” that haunts Venom Snake. It manifests in a very literal sense. In the cassette tape titled Ocelot’s Briefing , Venom Snake mentions that he still feels pain in the fingertips of his left hand despite the fact that his left arm is missing. He is also haunted by hallucinations he has of Paz, whose death he witnesses. She is a phantom that constantly visits him. It is a reminder of the fact that he could not save her.
Metal Gear Solid V illustrates how events of the past can etch themselves into your mind permanently and slowly drive you crazy. In that state of mind, it is not hard to eventually believe that revenge is the only way to bring about justice and find resolution.
The world of The Last of Us Part II takes us out of the desert war zones of Afghanistan and into the concrete jungle of an urban dystopia. It is the sequel to The Last of Us, a game about a hardened weapons smuggler named Joel who lives by the bullet in a world where society has collapsed following a pandemic that has turned much of the population into zombie-like monsters. He finds himself smuggling a different kind of cargo when he accompanies a young girl named Ellie across the country to deliver her to a group known as the Fireflies. This is because Ellie is immune to the zombie infection, and the Fireflies may be able to use Ellie to formulate a cure and save humanity.
During their journey, Joel and Ellie grow attached to each other and develop a father and daughter relationship. This bond grows so strong that by the time they meet the Fireflies, Joel is unable to stand back when he discovers that Ellie will have to die for the cure to be made. In an act of desperation, Joel kills the surgeon who plans on operating on Ellie and flees with her.
In The Last of Us Part II, Joel and Ellie have established a relatively peaceful life in Jackson where they are walled off from the infected and have a community of people they trust. This peace is disrupted when Abby, the daughter of the surgeon Joel kills, decides to seek her own revenge and violently murders Joel in front of Ellie. The event traumatizes Ellie, leaving her with permanent psychological pain. This manifests physically when she starts shivering as she visits Joel’s home following his death. Seeing his belongings and smelling his familiar scent is enough to bring tears to her eyes. This pain is the fuel that drives her to go on a manhunt for Abby and make her feel the pain that she is now stuck with.
In both Metal Gear Solid V and The Last of Us Part II, the catalyst for seeking revenge is trauma. Ellie and Venom Snake are convinced that pursuing revenge will bring about justice and cure their psychological pain. But what is justice and how does one determine what is objectively just?
2. Justice: My Black is Your White
Central to most societies is the concept of justice which, put simply, means that people should get what they deserve. On the surface, it seems like an agreeable philosophy. Good deeds should be rewarded while the wicked should be punished so as to maintain balance. However, when you start applying this concept to the complicated scenarios that make up human life, things do not look so easily resolvable any longer.
In Metal Gear Solid V, these issues of justice produce moral dilemmas that you as the gamer have to navigate on your path to revenge. As Snake tracks down Skull Face, he comes across several mercenary groups that stand in his path. You, as the player, have various tools at your disposal for eliminating these mercenaries. You could arm yourself to the teeth and tackle each outpost using as much lethal force as you can muster up. However, is this just? Do the mercenaries deserve to be killed for merely standing in the way of your lust for revenge?
Non-lethal tactics can also be used but they also bring up their own moral issues. Do murderers deserve to be treated with a level of consideration that they would not afford others? After all, none of the armed forces you encounter bother opting for non-lethal tools when dealing with you. Is it not fair to pay them back in kind?
These moral issues reach a crescendo when Venom Snake encounters child soldiers in Central Africa. They are every bit as lethal as their adult counterparts, but they are still children. Though the game punishes you heavily for using lethal force against child soldiers, you cannot help but wonder whether the children deserve some kind of punishment for the terror they unleash on the African villages they attack. Though they may be children, it does not mitigate the amount of harm and suffering they cause.
The Last of Us Part II raises its own assortment of moral quandaries regarding justice. Ellie is hot-headed and stubborn on her pursuit of revenge. She goes on a cross-country journey to Seattle to find the Washington Liberation Front which Abby is a member of. On her way there, she resorts to violence to both protect herself and to make headway in her quest. However, this results in lots of collateral damage. People get killed who have absolutely nothing to do with Ellie’s grudge. This is perhaps most poignantly illustrated when Ellie kills WLF member Mel, only to discover that she is heavily pregnant. Of course, the unborn child is blameless in this situation. However, Ellie’s quest for her own ideals of justice have arguably resulted in a monumental injustice.
While Ellie strongly believes in her own convictions of who is victim and who is villain in her life, there are several people who may vehemently disagree. This is especially true for Abby. Her murder of Joel was her own form of justice undertaken to avenge the murder of her father. From Abby’s perspective, Joel was only getting what he had served out to someone she loved dearly.
Juxtaposing Ellie and Abby’s motivations reveals a problematic aspect about the pursuit of justice – it can often result in unending cycles of retribution. Abby feels that she has been wrong, and she seeks justice against Joel. However, she harms Ellie in the process. Ellie, in her consequent pursuit of retribution, harms several others in the process too, giving them reason to seek their own retaliation. This cycle could, in theory, continue indefinitely and down several generations, producing nothing but violence and misery. From this perspective, righteous indignation seems more like a vice than a virtue.
3. Revenge: What Is It Good For?
Although not surprising, some of the most controversial aspects of both Metal Gear Solid V and The Last of Us Part II lie with how they resolve the concept of revenge. By making subversive narrative choices, they are able to communicate interesting things about the consequences of revenge and how the reality of it may not always match up to what one might expect.
In Metal Gear Solid V, Venom Snake eventually catches Skull Face and has his opportunity to enact his revenge. Armed with a shotgun, he proceeds to blast his limbs off. As a cherry on top, he does not give him the mercy of taking him out of his misery.
The hate and rage that Venom Snake lives with transforms him, turning him into yet another destructive player in the game of war. This transformation is illustrated metaphorically through the piece of shrapnel that remains lodged in Venom Snake’s head following the explosion that puts him in a coma. The shrapnel juts out like the horn of a devil, serving as a constant reminder to the player of the dark side that Venom Snake’s craving for revenge has brought out. As the saying goes, when slaying monsters be sure to take care that you do not become one.
Revenge does not have the effect Venom Snake expects it to. The phantom pain remains. War continues. Nothing changes. This is perhaps best summed up in the scene below:
In The Last of Us Part II, Ellie’s quest for revenge is in part motivated by her desire to overcome the trauma she lives with daily. Years after Joel’s death, even after Ellie has established an idyllic life for herself, Dina and their child, she is still haunted by memories of Joel and the pain of his death.
Ellie believes that by finally getting even with Abby, she can finally free herself from this trauma. Dina, on the other hand, is not willing to go through the turmoil of wondering where Ellie is and whether she is still alive. She would rather have her safe at home, and to forget about Abby forever. Hence, she gives Ellie an ultimatum – revenge or family. Begrudgingly, Ellie chooses revenge. At this point she has let her desire for retribution consume her and she is no better than a desperate addict.
Ellie’s final showdown with Abby is far from the satisfying event she hopes for it to be. Instead, it is a sad moment between two badly broken women experiencing a world of psychological pain. Even at this point, Ellie does not stop losing things in her quest for revenge. The fight results in her losing two fingers and it is only after this that Ellie finally relents and lets Abby go.
As previously stated, Metal Gear Solid V and The Last of Us Part II garner controversy for not offering a sweet and satisfying revenge story. Instead, they illustrate how a righteous desire for justice can turn one into a monster and morph victims into villains. For both Ellie and Venom Snake, revenge is not the antidote to the grief and pain that weighs them down. In the shadow of trauma, sometimes the only cure is to accept loss and somehow, as an inevitably changed person, find a way to move forward and leave the past behind.
(Metal Gear Sold V video uploaded by Roy Mothma.)