Phantom Pains: The Forever War Both Inside and Out

“Why are we still here? Just to suffer? Every night, I can feel my leg… And my arm… even my fingers… The body I’ve lost… the comrades I’ve lost… won’t stop hurting… It’s like they’re all still there. You feel it, too, don’t you? I’m gonna make them give back our past!” — Kazuhira Miller

“We’ll make diamonds from their ashes. Take them into battle with us.” — Punished Snake

Content Warning: Eating Disorder(s), Suicidal Ideation

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain was released in 2015 to both critical acclaim and confusion. I started college in August 2015 with both excitement and confusion. The Phantom Pain showcased the cycle of the forever war and I had yet to grapple with the battle being waged inside myself. This game and my pain, which I am now comfortably removed from (to an extent), are forever inseparable. The confusion that The Phantom Pain released to was in regards to its story and the confusion I carried with me to college was a yet undiagnosed but very real eating disorder.

People were bothered that, likely due to Konami and Hideo Kojima’s working relationship falling apart, The Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain didn’t have a real ending—or an ending in the sense we’ve come to understand it. There isn’t a final cutscene that wraps a neat bow over everything. This never bothered me. To me, the game’s ending or lack thereof is horrifically honest. Punished Snake spends the majority of the game in both Africa and Afghanistan, he’s not attached to the United States anymore, but he is still an American having a hand in destabilizing regions that are still in various states of conflict today largely due to American (and western) imperialism. Why should his battle end? It doesn’t. There are still missions to accept, foreign bodies to sneak by, shoot, or kidnap to join your own nation-less army. Such is the way things go. War isn’t clean, it never was, and no amount of jingoistic propaganda will convince us otherwise, especially in a post-Korean War America. I liked, or rather was disturbed by, the dirtiness and knottiness of the last few hours of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. Punished Snake can escape conflict or help usher in a better world, all he can do is fight. In a way, I related to this.

Body dysmorphia has been something I’ve struggled with since middle school. External and internal pressures made it impossible for me to see myself and my body as worthy, or nice, or beautiful. I was ugly, worthless, and it was all my fault. What my eyes saw in the mirror was something disgusting, something pitiful. But that wasn’t true then and it isn’t true now, no matter what that acidic little voice in my mind tries to say. Body dysmorphia weighed my shoulders down for years until it finally gave way to an eating disorder and a relationship with food I still struggle with. While I’ve recovered from my eating disorder, I still don’t have a truly honest relationship with food or my body. I enjoy both, see their beauty, but it isn’t “normal”, whatever normal is. That eating disorder—of which I will not delve into the mechanical details of but it included binging, starving myself, forced expulsion, and the like—followed me like a ghost through the latter years of high school. It wasn’t bad then, I could stop at any time, or so I thought. My family didn’t know about it, my secret was safely kept. And so college entered the picture. Now my family was many states away and my eating disorder spiraled. Food was something I no longer enjoyed. It was a nuisance. Eating food meant that I had to find a way to sneak away from my friends without them thinking anything of it, getting rid of said food, and reentering the picture as if I was okay and good and normal. No one saw my battle, and if they did, they didn’t say anything, which is fine. I didn’t want anyone to see it. I wanted to struggle and suffer alone. Obviously, it got worse. And then Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain came out. I saw my horribly painful, circular battle reflected in that game, but that realization didn’t lead me to seek support. Instead, I just played that game in my dorm room for nearly 100 hours, reflecting on myself, and never thinking about changing much like Punished Snake never really thought about ending his wars. He just kept fighting and I just kept on hurting.

Punished Snake and Kaz rarely talk about anything beyond death, pain, and becoming their worst, most violent selves as The Phantom Pain goes ever on until the non-ending that doesn’t conclude a damn thing. My relationship with the game was much the same as Peace Walker (“oh this core gameplay loop is super fun and this is some of the best stealth shit ever”) up until those last few hours. Punished Snake has to kill many of his men that have become infected with something, his horn grows as he gets closer and closer to being a devil, and finally, the story blows itself apart with questions and non-endings. Once all was said and done and I was back at the mission screen, I really started to see my pain in that game. Having tried to get better multiple times up to that point, The Phantom Pain’s non-ending hit me very hard. The war and violence sort of just going on felt honest to my inner conflict and both western-influenced conflicts at large. We only just left Afghanistan and we did so in a wave of errors and death.

But I still don’t think I learned much from whatever Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain was trying to teach me, or at least I didn’t at the time. The proof being that I’m only now reflecting on it six or seven years later. My inner battle with my body image and my body itself through self-induced repeated physical and mental trauma didn’t end just as Punished Snake’s war didn’t end. It took years, moving home, and lots of support, honesty, and therapy to “get better”. And it wasn’t easy to get better. I wanted to die and I kept losing weight. My parents found out and brought me home where I lived with them for a few months before going back to school, this time at Georgia State University. I couldn’t bring myself to tell my friends why I was going home before my junior year. I said it was an internship, but it was because If I stayed i would’ve likely died by my own hand or at the cost of my eating disorder. The biggest regret I currently have is not being honest with them because they would’ve understood and been endlessly supportive. Hindsight is 20/20, I guess.

I am better now. My relationship to food and my body is a lot better, I haven’t done any “eating disorder stuff” in three years, and while I’m still not the biggest fan of my body and still feel the phantom pain of repeated trauma, I can honestly say I am okay. Yes, I wish I was better but I can settle with who I am and I am curious and happy to see who I’ll become. The Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is currently paused on my gaming monitor and I keep looking at it. Here I am in my fourth play-through. So much has changed for me but nothing has changed for Punished Snake and his forever war. He’s doomed to sneak and murder and kidnap in Afghanistan and Africa until the game is no longer playable. The lens with which I view the game now skews more into the grossness of western imperialism than the bodily violence I once engaged in, but that baggage, much like the missing limbs that Kaz still feels, will always remain. So, so much has changed but there will always be pain. A piece of me will never come back and the years I lived with the hidden pain of an eating disorder will forever stain what are also some of the best years of my still young life. Reflection is everything, I guess. I’m sorry, I don’t know how to end this essay.

Words on games, death and stuff like that.