Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is the latest in a long series of stealth-action titles stretching back to the 1980s. You knew that. It has a dedicated, almost cult-like fan base of hardcore followers who know every detail of the lore and legends of the series to which it belongs (and those of its creator, Hideo Kojima). You knew that, too. But, if you’re like me – a casual fan of the Metal Gear series – you probably don’t know (or don’t remember) the details of just what is going on in the universe of Metal Gear, the events leading up to The Phantom Pain, or what a Naked Snake is. Don’t worry; I did some research and wrote up this handy, er, handbook for you, which lays out the events leading up to (and beyond) The Phantom Pain in an easy-to-understand format. Let’s go!
Metal Gear (released: 1987; in-game year: 1995)
Metal Gear is the game that started it all. It follows the exploits of a rookie member of FOXHOUND, a secret U.S. Army Spec Ops unit, as he attempts to infiltrate a South African fortress called Outer Heaven – and uncover the secrets of a purported weapon of mass destruction being built there. The rookie, later identified as “Solid Snake,” eventually confronts Outer Heaven’s leader Big Boss, who reveals his motivation to create a world where soldiers can fight free from ideologies forced upon them by their respective countries’ governments. This theme is crucial throughout the Metal Gear series.
Eventually, Snake and Big Boss have a showdown, and Big Boss reveals Outer Heaven’s super weapon: a gigantic, mech-like battle platform called Metal Gear. Against all odds, Snake wins, but Big Boss lives to fight another day.
Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake (released: 1990; in-game year: 1999)
Following the events of the first Metal Gear, Snake retires from the Army, but is called back into the service by his old commander Roy Campbell, when a scientist who is critical to the worldwide energy crisis is kidnapped. Snake is sent to get him back from the newly formed Central Asian nation of Zanzibarland, but is opposed by the killer assassin Gray Fox in an all-new, upgraded Metal Gear. Snake manages to take down Gray Fox, only to discover he was too late to save the scientist… and then to be bushwhacked by Big Boss. Forced to improvise, Snake takes down Big Boss using an aerosol hair spray can and a cigarette lighter.
Metal Gear Solid (released: 1998; in-game year: 2005)
A watershed game for a variety of reasons, MGS set the stage for The Phantom Pain, most importantly by introducing the concept that the protagonist Solid Snake is one of several clones of Big Boss, and that he is dying from a virus specifically designed to kill him and other FOXHOUND members.
MGS takes place on a remote, Alaskan island called Shadow Moses, where a group of genetically enhanced super-soldiers has taken over a secret nuclear-weapons disposal facility, and is using them, and a new Metal Gear (Metal Gear REX) to hold the U.S. government hostage and demand that it turn over the body of Big Boss for their own purposes. Solid Snake is again brought out of retirement by Roy Campbell and sent into the maelstrom. This time he is aided by Meryl Silverburgh, Campbell’s daughter (presented as his niece at the outset of the game, thus the different last name), and Hal “Otacon” Emmerich – the Oppenheimer-esque creator of Metal Gear REX, whom Solid Snake rescues.
On the island, Solid Snake encounters not only a slew of his old FOXHOUND comrades – all of whom oppose his mission – but also Liquid Snake, his twin, who is also a clone of Big Boss. Liquid got all of Big Boss’ dominant genes, while Solid got the recessive ones, but they’re both extremely dangerous combatants (also, in a surprise twist, the dominant/recessive dichotomy actually turns out to be the other way around). Snake is manipulated through a series of clever ruses into activating Metal Gear REX, which Liquid quickly uses to attack him and bring his plan of terror against the U.S. to fruition. However, Gray Fox reappears and disables Metal Gear REX, protecting Snake at the cost of his own life.
Snake, Meryl, and Otacon escape Shadow Moses with Liquid hot on their tails, but following a spectacular car chase (ending in an even more spectacular car crash), Liquid has Snake right where he wants him – but suddenly dies from the aforementioned FOXDIE virus. Snake, Meryl, and Otacon, all escape the island together.
Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty (released: 2001; in-game year: 2007-2009)
One of the highest-rated video games of all time, Sons of Liberty continues where MGS left off, revealing that Snake and Liquid had a third clone brother, called Solidus Snake… who was the President of the United States during the events of the previous game. Following his tenure as President, Solidus takes over the Big Shell, an offshore drilling facility, where he oversees the development of Arsenal Gear, essentially a vast, underwater base that will house a complex A.I. that will be used to subtly influence the course of human society through manipulation of information on the Internet.
Raiden, a former child soldier and charge of Solidus Snake, infiltrates the Big Shell to take down the threat. Unlike Snake, Raiden enters the facility alone, but he is assisted by a presumed-dead Solid Snake (and other MGS characters) throughout the mission. As he confronts Solidus, Raiden learns that Solidus is attempting to counteract the influence of a vast secret cabal of power brokers called “The Patriots,” who have been essentially controlling world events behind the scenes for decades. Though Raiden takes down Solidus, it’s revealed that everyone – Raiden included – has been manipulated by Revolver Ocelot, a former FOXHOUND operative, who is working for the Patriots.
Sons of Liberty features one of the most wonderfully complex mind-screw endings ever created in a video game. To detail it would require an entire article of this size, and there are still things about it that we don’t fully understand (and that subsequent MGS games have continued to build on to this day).
Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (released: 2004; in-game year: 1964)
Jumping back in time, Snake Eater is the first game chronologically in the Metal Gear series, and follows Big Boss during his time as a soldier at the height of the Cold War. Under the code name “Snake,” or more specifically, “Naked Snake” (for his propensity to go on missions with no equipment or weapons), Big Boss is tasked with taking down his former mentor and implied love interest/mother figure – confusingly called “The Boss” – after she defects to the Soviet Union. During the course of his mission, Big Boss reveals that The Boss’ defection was a ruse to get close to and kill Spetsnaz Commander Volgin (the game’s main antagonist), but that it went wrong… and The Boss was unable to escape. Snake Eater explores themes of the shifting loyalty of soldiers, the origins of the Patriots, the nature of personal relationships when they conflict with one’s official duties, and what constitutes heroism and courage.
Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots (released: 2008; in-game year: 2014)
Chronologically the most recent Metal Gear game, Guns of the Patriots follows Snake in an advanced state of age, as he tries to track down and stop Revolver Ocelot – whose mind has been usurped by Liquid Snake (…because Ocelot grafted the dead Liquid’s arm onto himself). Despite Solid Snake having destroyed Arsenal Gear in Sons of Liberty, the Patriots are still influencing world affairs, and need to be stopped. Ocelot opposes the Patriots, but seeks to take over their A.I. and influence the world’s now-vast military networks for his own ends. Snake opposes both Ocelot and the Patriots, and is takes on his perennial role of fly in the ointment. With help from Otacon, Raiden, and other longtime Metal Gear allies, Snake succeeds in destroying the behind-the-scenes influence and decides to live out his last remaining years in peace.
Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker (released: 2010; in-game year: 1974)
Peace Walker explores the youth of Big Boss during his time as leader of a mercenary group called Militaires Sans Frontières (“Soldiers Without Borders”). It goes into detail about Big Boss’ theories of warfare and how the military interacts with society at large. It has been described as something of a commentary on the relationship between Metal Gear designer Hideo Kojima (the real “Big Boss”) and his design studio Kojima Productions (his own Militaires Sans Frontières), with publishing house Konami (represented by the world governments). The story itself involves Big Boss and crew interceding in a black-market deal for nuclear warheads in Latin America, which quickly goes sideways.
Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes (released: 2014; in-game year: 1974)
The direct prologue to The Phantom Pain again goes back to following Big Boss – this time as he’s tasked with rescuing some key VIPs from Peace Walker, who are being held on a U.S. military black-site on the island of Cuba. In this game, the Militaires Sans Frontières HQ is attacked by a mysterious organization called XOF; in his rush to defend it, Big Boss is involved in a helicopter crash and put into a coma for nine years. When he awakens, he creates a new mercenary organization, the Diamond Dogs, to take revenge on XOF, which leads to the events of The Phantom Pain.