By Stefan Keerssemeeckers
It’s a sad fact of life: many happy relationships end on a sour note. Music is one among many ways to overcome a painful break-up. Mixtapes for moping, ballads for the broken-hearted; they help anyone going through a difficult period. This goes for romantic drama, naturally, but any meaningful separation causes its own kind of phantom pain.
A lot has been said and written about Metal Gear creator Hideo Kojima’s nasty and permanent separation from Konami. When Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain came out, many people noticed the songs on the licensed 80’s soundtrack gave away crucial details of the plot. Of course, this would only became apparent to players as they progressed through the game. But what if we were listening in the wrong way, looking for the wrong things? What happens if you look at this generally downbeat collection of tunes as a mixtape about Kojima’s protracted and painful separation from Konami?
One of Kojima’s trademarks as a designer is putting himself in the work, in ways big and small. And he also has form in making references to his own situation as a creator. For example, Ground Zeroes features a mission where Venom Snake has to erase the logos of Metal Gear games Kojima was involved in, which with hindsight we have to regard as a not-so-subtle communication that Konami was getting rid of him.
Ground Zeroes would not be Kojima’s grand finale - but it was telling us something was wrong. It’s no great secret that, as part of the break-up, Kojima was stopped from talking about the situation. So if you’re trying to circumvent a corporate gag order, what better way than hiding information on the soundtrack? It’s something that can be done relatively late in development, and the advantage of plausible deniability is on your side. Could the break-up story already be under our noses?
I’m going to suggest that this is the case. The soundtrack does reflect elements of the Kojima-Konami split, but of course we’re dealing with allusions, metaphor, and information that became public after the row. This means there’s going to be an unavoidable element of fuzziness around parts of the argument, and also a lot of strange coincidences involving the background to these tracks - as any Kojima fan knows, the man’s appetite for trivia is absolutely exhaustive. I make the latter point because it’s fair to expect that he’d know all these details about the tracks he chose for the grand finale, and the strange thing is that once you start digging, this rabbit hole goes deep. Not for nothing is the series’ final scene a man listening to a cassette tape, and then going out to face his future.
Trouble in Paradise
Well before The Phantom Pain, Kojima announced his departure from the Metal Gear series more times than we care to remember. The tug of war between the love for his creation, and the desire to do something new entirely, was won by the former for a very long time. Spandau Ballet’s True paints a picture of a man who lost himself over the years. “Always in time, but never in line for dreams.” Kojima may be under a gag order but “I want the truth to be said.”
You see, along with Pro Evolution Soccer, Metal Gear is Konami’s flagship series. Kojima is tired of making these games, but at the same time indispensable. Hundreds of peoples’ jobs depend on his repeated creativity. Like the girl in Billy Idol’s Rebel Yell, his employer just can’t help asking for more, more, more.
Mind Over Matter
Although Metal Gear’s chokehold on Kojima is uncomfortable, it’s not the only problem he has. Kojima values his artistic license above anything while Konami - understandably - is interested in the facts and figures. This put the two partners at odds, and similar relationships underlie some of the tracks in MGSV’s soundtrack.
Limahl, the flamboyant frontman for Kajagoogoo, was unceremoniously booted from the band (by phone!) a couple of months after Too Shy became a hit. The band stuck to their story about ‘creative differences’ and called it ‘a business decision’. Limahl, on the other hand, furiously claimed he was ‘betrayed’, and had been ‘sacked for making them a success’. He had a point, and it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see how Kojima might feel the same.
When Dead or Alive were recording their single You Spin Me Round (Like a Record), the band was convinced they had struck musical gold. Their producers… not so much. Vocalist Pete Burns (whose eyepatch has serious echoes of Big Boss) recalled the sessions being clouded by ‘very bad vibes’, and a source of ‘intense friction’.
If we take things ‘meta’ again, Pete Burns said You Spin Me Round (Like a Record) was inspired by two separate songs. Luther Vandross’s I Wanted your Love, and Little Nell’s See You Round Like a Record.
The first one is about an artist, who is down and out because his love abandoned him, or possibly died. ‘Oh, but when the lights went down, and the standing O(vation) was done, I was just another lonely guy who didn’t have no one.’ It’s melancholy, and fitting for Venom Snake who loses his own identity. Of course, his love interest Quiet also meets an untimely end.
See you round like a record could be interpreted as the same story, but from the other viewpoint. A woman amused herself with some guy, but enough is enough. ‘See you round like a record, our romance is kinda checkered, see you round like a record, see you round / Check you out, maybe later, leave your name at the waiter’. That’s cold! Almost as cold as Big Boss using Venom Snake, his greatest and most loyal soldier, as a decoy: ‘see ya!’
‘Mind Over Matter’ Daryl Hall sings in Hall & Oates’ Maneater. A beautiful woman is after his *cough* snake, but this mantra functions as a cold shower. Mind over matter also describes Kojima’s approach to making games: creativity over product. Maneater might very well be Kojima telling us Konami is acting like a measly bean counter, or even suggesting that they exist only to chew up and spit out their employees. ‘Money’s the matter, if you’re in it for love, You ain’t gonna get too far.’
Kojima never made a secret of the tension between artistic vision, and creating a bona-fide hit. The song Gloria is a prime example of this. The original version, in Italian and written by Umberto Tozzi, is about an imaginary woman, for whom the singer has been waiting all his life, and still is. It has a strong subtext about masturbation, that could probably only sound sexy when sung by a sultry Italian.
It might surprise you (or not), that Laura Branigan’s American version omits the lyrical origins. While still a great song, a lot gets lost in the translation. Hideo Kojima himself told about his frustrations with big budgets stifling creativity in a round table interview a couple of years ago. In the same interview, he said that games can only be considered art if they touch on controversial topics. Masturbating Italians probably weren’t the first thing on his mind, back then, but the fact remains the American version of Gloria is a reworked, sanitised version of the original, and also by far the most successful incarnation of the song.
A quick search reveals there are versions of Gloria in Spanish, French, Flemish, Czech, Estonian, German, Swedish, Finnish and Korean. MGSV’s villain, Skullface, is breeding parasites to eliminate English as the global lingua franca. Here we have an example of that dominance, with the English Gloria overshadowing all other versions, even the original. The song acts as a proof of the villain’s motivations, hiding in plain sight.
The English lyrics concern the titular character torn between different choices. ‘Will you marry for the money, take a lover in the afternoon?’ Kojima’s options were similar. ‘Do I want to stay at Konami, and make Metal Gear games ad infinitum? Or should I leave, and do something I’d really like?’
Back to Bedlam
At some point, Hideo Kojima decides to bail from Konami. Whether he took the decision himself, or the situation reached a breaking point isn’t clear. Hostilities rise and Kojima is done. The Konami he once cherished has devolved into a madhouse, like the one featured in Thomas Dolby’s She blinded me with science. In Kojima’s mind, the lunatics have finally taken over the asylum. Furthermore, two aspects of this song seem to point towards technical difficulties while working on MGSV.
Thomas Dolby wrote the video for She blinded me with science before the song itself. Music videos were all the rage in those early MTV-days, and Dolby (actually more of an experimental artist) couldn’t wait to get involved. Of course, this is the reverse of how most songwriters work.
The cart was put in front of the horse, and then there’s that title: referring to unforeseen problems with the Fox Engine, perhaps, and the struggle to move a traditionally linear series open-world while retaining the detail it was famed for. The final nugget in this song can be found in the exclamations of Magnus Pyke. “Good heavens, Miss Sakamoto! You’re beautiful!” I’m not sure if this is a wave towards Konami’s director at the time, Satoshi Sakamoto, or perhaps his wife, but we all know Kojima’s not above lewd references. As the video is the ‘original’ work, perhaps the ‘plot’ there is important. Summarised: man enters asylum, sees it is bullshit, ogles Miss Sakamoto, leaves.
She Blinded me with Science also loosely connects to the game’s own themes. Quiet deceived the Diamond Dogs not exactly with science, but certainly through science. Huey Emmerich is the only scientist of note, and it turns out he’s a nasty piece of work that seems to cross and doublecross everyone: developing giant armed robo-walkers, suffocating love-interests, manipulating parasites to kill off the Diamond Dogs, Otacon’s old man builds up quite a list. And he does much of this trapped on an oil rig (apparently manned by the best spies in the world) and keeps his treacherous actions hidden, until it’s far too late.
Meanwhile, Konami decides it has had enough of Kojima’s prima donna behaviour, and decides to crack down on the development team. Apparently Kojima was confined to a different floor than his co-workers. Some bits in Kim Wilde’s Kids in America reference the abysmal working conditions. "Looking out a dirty old window, down below the cars in the city go rushing by, I sit here alone and I wonder why". If Konami locked you into your office for six months, unable to directly communicate with the people working on your game, it… kind of fits.
Asia’s Only time will tell also fits the theme like a glove. “You're on your own, Inside your room, You're claiming victory, You were just using me, And there is no one you can use now”. Not the most subtle of jabs, but it gets the job done.
Ploughing Through the Debris
Some songs on the MGSV-soundtrack don’t point to the trouble under the surface directly, but rather through the choice of artists that were under duress recording their own work, sometimes to tragic ends. Joy Division's Love Will Tear Us Apart is an apt choice, a new wave anthem that is also a clinical, haunting description of a failing relationship. Behind the scenes, singer Ian Curtis struggled heavily with depression. Curtis took his own life before Love will tear us apart was released as a single, and became the band’s defining track. After a short hiatus, the remaining members went on under the moniker New Order.
The Cure was also in a tight spot when Friday I’m in Love was recorded. Robert Smith and pals found it very hard to follow-up on their previous album, the highly acclaimed Disintegration. The Cure seemed to be in good shape, but frontman Robert Smith struggled with the superstardom. After Wish (the album featuring Friday I’m in Love ) was completed, several members left the Cure, and Smith himself went on hiatus for a couple of years. Later, Smith commented on this track in NME. “For a long time, I didn't like certain songs because I thought: You're to blame, you bastard. You made me popular. Friday I'm in love is a perfect example of that.” Smith and Kojima certainly seem to share a love-hate relationship with their most famous works. Next to that, if you ever found yourself in a shitty workplace, you’ve probably longed for Friday a lot of times. This notion of enduring the long, tedious working hours is also a part of Kids in America.
Ultravox didn’t exactly break up when they recorded their album Lament, featuring Dancing With Tears in My Eyes. But, Lament was the band’s last record with founding member Warren Cann. Tensions rose when Cann and the rest of the band disagreed about how to approach the drums in the future (live-drumming, or a programmable drum computer). Ultravox frontman Midge Ure later called the sacking “unjust, unwarranted, and a result of misplaced tensions.” This didn’t end the band per se, but it did mark the point where Ultravox went into a nosedive, never to recover.
If we add Kajagoogoo to this list (they didn’t amount to much after kicking out Limahl, much to his glee), a large proportion of bands on the MGSV soundtrack fell apart during production of their most well-known work.
Ground control to Major Tom
When the split becomes final, Kojima realises MGSV is Big Boss’s final outing under his supervision. This is it. Enter the big-haired rockers Europe, with their hit Final Countdown. I always assumed this song was about the constant threat of nuclear destruction raining down on fabulous glam hairdos. But on closer inspection, this is not the case: Final Countdown is about a spaceship, taking off for the uncharted reaches of Venus. Ignoring that the planet is hilariously lethal, the point is in leaving behind the security of what you know to chase dreams. Interestingly, there’s an element of acceptance to this one, too: “I guess there’s no one to blame.” If we look at the new Kojima Productions, and its skeleton astronaut logo, it seems Kojima takes the spaceship metaphor quite seriously.
In this IGN interview, he even compared the building of his new company to ‘launching a spaceship’.
Bye Bye, Birdie
Another nugget is that Kids in America was written by Kim Wilde’s father, Marty. Marty Wilde was a well-known rocker in the ‘50s and ‘60s who also starred in the musical Bye Bye Birdie. The story is about a manager who’s trying to make one last hit with popular artist Conrad Birdie (depicted by Wilde), before the latter goes overseas to fulfil his military service. The story is obviously inspired by the draft of Elvis Presley, a huge news story at the time and a temporary lull in his career. Hijinks ensue and, in the end, Birdie is sent off to Europe and his manager settles in small town Iowa, with the love of his life, to fulfil his dream of becoming an English teacher.
It’s a little far-fetched, I admit, but Kojima surely saw some parallels here: making one last hit with Big Boss, and then separating to follow their own paths. This isn’t to say Kojima is ecstatic with how everything turned out. The ordeal may be over, but victory is bittersweet (“Dancing With Tears in My Eyes”). The future is uncertain, precarious as in Final Countdown. Japan’s Quiet Life strikes the same note: “Boys, the times are changing, the going could get rough”, and, “Boys, are you contemplating moving out somewhere?”
Kids in America isn’t just Hideo’s lament about being locked in the office, by the way. A couple of verses later. Wilde assures us "Got to get a brand new experience, feeling right", and “There's a new wave, I warn ya.” Although Kojima is leaving his publisher behind, these lines look to the future. Perhaps it’s now worth pointing out something stunningly obvious, which is a bias towards geographically-named artists and tracks: Japan, Asia, America and Europe all feature in either song titles or artist names. Kojima is no stranger to world press tours and, indeed, following his departure from Konami he underwent something of a global holiday - scouring Sony studios for tech to use in his new project Death Stranding, eventually settling for an in-house auxiliary in Amsterdam.
In this light, A-ha’s Take on Me addresses us directly. “So needless to say, I’m at odds and ends, I’m stumbling away, Say after me, It’s no better to be safe than sorry.” Perhaps more crucially: “You’re all the things I got to remember, You’re shying away, I’ll be coming for you anyway.” It’s almost a promise. Kojima’s not quite sure his plan is going to succeed, but he’s doing his very best, and promising his fans he’ll be back for them.
The Man Who Sold the world
David Bowie’s The Man Who Sold the World is probably the most profound song in the MGSV soundtrack. David Bowie is also every Metal Gear Solid character ever!
The lyrics basically give away the plot, and the version here is a cover by Midge Ure (of Ultravox-fame). Many people thought it was the Bowie performance, which is apt, because of course Venom Snake secretly isn’t Big Boss. The masterful use of this song is why I started peeling at the soundtrack’s layers in the first place.
The artificial 80’s pop sound makes Ure’s cover version a wonderful fit with the game’s evocation of that era, but the song itself is just perfect for Kojima’s themes. The Man who Sold the World is seen as the start of Bowie’s stardom, even though his definitive breakthrough came with Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. ‘The Man’ is a bit of a weird album, that features songs about vicious killers (Running Gun Blues), powerful computers (Saviour Machine or Could it be… Metal Gear?) and, of course, Nietzsche (The Supermen).
This melancholic ballad is about a man who meets himself, or perhaps a part of his own personality. Big Boss describes himself as the man who sold the world. He’s at a low point when the game starts, and is willing to do anything to get even with Skullface and fulfil the Boss’s Dream.
He endangers the world, robs Venom Snake of his own identity, and after MGSV Big Boss is the fully-fledged villain who’ll be thwarted by Solid Snake years later. The lyrics of the song are not just about the literal Big Boss/Venom Snake switcheroo, but the context within which it happens and the limits of human comprehension.
‘I laughed and shook his hand, and made my way back home, I searched for form and land, for years and years I roamed, I gazed a gazy stare, at all the millions there, We must have died alone, a long, long time ago.’
The lyrics move between singular and plural: “Oh not, not me, we never lost control.” Venom Snake didn’t sell the world but, at the same time, he is now part of Big Boss, who did. As we say in the Netherlands, he’s sewn into the suit. If Big Boss on some level represents Kojima, Venom Snake symbolises the player. The former rides off into the sunset, and Metal Gear’s future is left in players’ hands.
Kojima himself can be thought of as the man who sold the world, in ultimately abandoning his most famous creation and fans. The same thing can be said of Konami, alleged to be focusing on rapid-fire, bankable small games and pachinko, instead of big budget blockbusters. It’s the end of an era, for everyone involved.
Initially, Kojima planned to use Diamond Dogs as the title song, for obvious reasons, but this apparently got vetoed by his team. The significance? Diamond Dogs (the album) was the point where Bowie retired the ultra-successful Ziggy Stardust, and introduced the character Halloween Jack. Nice eyepatch.
The Phantom Strain
We can gather all the evidence we like, but it’s worth remembering that we can’t say for sure MGSV ’s soundtrack is intended as an account of the Kojima/Konami battle (unless Kojima himself confirms it, and good luck with that). When you build an argument out of trivia you’ve got to stay aware of the risk of confirmation bias, and pop songs in general often being about love, break-ups, the future, etcetera.
Nevertheless, one of the great themes of The Phantom Pain is revenge. The feud between Kojima and Konami became public very late in the game’s development, so it’s unlikely the revenge angle was inspired by this, but this is why the soundtrack is of such interest - many parts of a game are set in stone and can’t be changed in the last years of development, but a licensed soundtrack is a late priority.
If Kojima wanted to take in-game parting shots at Konami, needless to say they needed to be subtle and deniable. All of the songs chosen for MGSV’s world contain potential links, some of them bizarrely appropriate, and some even referenced in later interviews. A few of the links I’ve made may strike you as tenuous. But for me it’s the overwhelming sum of ‘coincidences’ that make something more calculated seem plausible, even believable: all the different allusions to relationships ending, the abundance of bands that were going through crises in the background, the sacked frontmen, the struggles with fame. Hard to dismiss such an accumulation of coincidences as a happy accident. Let's call it what it is: hideosyncrasy.